Coronavirus Forces Us to Notice the Essential Role of Public Schools

Maybe someday we’ll all come to agree that we were crazy—for two decades after No Child Left Behind— to accept school closure as a “turnaround strategy” for so-called “failing” (low-scoring) public schools. Certainly the coronavirus pandemic, when public schools are being shut down to protect the public health, ought to be a wake-up call.  While we cannot question the public health experts who are prescribing such a radical step, the widespread closure of public schools provides an occasion to examine the meaning of public education across today’s America.

Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago sociologist, recently examined the widespread, permanent, closure of public schools in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. At the end of the 2013 school year, Chicago Public Schools shut down 50 so-called “failing” schools, many of them on the South and West Sides. Ewing’s focus is broader than this week’s lesson, but she does examine the essential role of public schools as core social institutions that anchor neighborhoods: “Judith Butler argues that when a community faces the loss of a place, that loss can become so insurmountable that it becomes part of the community’s own self-definition… The people of Bronzeville understand that a school is more than a school.  A school is the site of a history and a pillar of black pride in a racist city.  A school is a safe place to be.  A school is a place where you find family.  A school is a home.” (Ghosts in the Schoolyard, pp. 155-156)

This week’s school closures—universal across many states—are only temporary, though parents and teachers cannot anticipate how long the shutdown will last.  But although schools are closed only temporarily, the closures are disruptive and disorienting.  Valerie Strauss presents tweets, some of them funny, from teachers trying to create online lessons and from lucky parents trying to work at home—two parents doing two jobs from home while their children try to study online—all on one computer.

But for society’s most vulnerable families, school may have a very different meaning. Back in 2003, just as school turnarounds—including school closure—were being prescribed as part of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, Pedro Noguera, an education sociologist (then at NYU, now at UCLA) argued that public schools are indispensable institutions: “Despite the severity of the conditions present in many urban schools, and despite the intractability of the problems they face, these deeply flawed institutions continue to serve millions of children throughout the United States. In fact, the largest school districts in the nation are classified as ‘urban’ and they serve nearly one-third of school-aged children… In a profound demonstration of faith, millions of parents voluntarily take their children each day to the very schools that have been described as ‘desperate hell holes.’… At a minimum, they may enroll their sons and daughters because they know that even at a failing public school their children will have access to a warm meal and adult supervision while they are there…  In economically depressed inner-city communities… public schools play a vital role in supporting low-income families. Even when other neighborhood services, including banks, retail stores, libraries and other public services do not exist, are shut down, or are abandoned, public schools remain. They are neighborhood constants… because they have a relatively stable source of funding, ensured by the legal mandate to educate children.”  (City Schools and the American Dream, pp. 4-6)

This past week, whether or not to close the public schools became a major dilemma and in some places, a political controversy. The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the extreme vulnerability of families in places where the public school is the primary source of economic and social support.

The Chicago Sun-TimesNader Issa explains why the decision to close schools for public health reasons was so complicated and difficult in Chicago: “Families in low-income and under-resourced communities rely on schools for breakfast, lunch and daycare for their children.  Some of these families have technology deficits at home.  Students with complex needs in special education programs depend on the care of trained professionals.  Parents who work hourly or are self-employed might not be able to afford taking time off work to care for their young children. ‘In some of these communities, if we take away a school—the only public good we still offer them—then we start to leave them to fend for themselves,’ said Victoria Trinder, a University of Illinois at Chicago assistant professor and urban elementary education program coordinator… It shouldn’t take a pandemic for policymakers to realize they need to help under-resourced communities and schools.  But the fact remains that it’s those exact hardships that mean the decision to shut down Chicago schools would undoubtedly need to be accompanied by serious social service efforts to minimize the burden on underserved communities—help that even in normal circumstances is insufficient.”

Issa profiles the special challenges for parents of children at Vaughn Occupational, a high school for special education students: “Given Vaughn students’ complex needs, including indispensable assistance from classroom aides, the infrastructure simply doesn’t exist to provide instruction online… That’s especially true district-wide with CPS’ more than 50,000 special education students, and others who might not have computer or internet access at home.” A parent of an autistic student explains the challenges for students like her son and for their families: “They have really high needs that can be met at schools but not at their neighbor’s house.”

Examining the decision that faced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio, the NY Times Editorial Board wonders, “What happens when working people are so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—that it puts the whole city at risk?”

As in Chicago, the NYC public schools are a primary support for the city’s most vulnerable families: “(N)early one million households in the city don’t have internet access, making online learning difficult… Of the more than one million students in New York’s roughly 1,700 schools, about 750,000 live at or below the poverty line. These children count on meals and critical services from the schools. About one in every 10 students is homeless.”

Public schools, explains the Editorial Board, are essential for more than the families whose children are enrolled: “New Yorkers should pause to absorb one important insight from the fact that the mayor and governor regarded the public schools as, essentially, the vital day care center for city workers. New York’s schools are a critical support network for the city’s children and those children’s parents are a critical support network for the city. This is both a tribute to the importance of the school system and to the hard-working New Yorkers who hold the city together, and a jarring indictment of how little support these New Yorkers receive in turn…. Like health care workers, transit employees, police officers, firefighters, E.M.S. employees, sanitation workers and other essential employees also have children in the public schools. Others, including low-wage workers who live paycheck to paycheck in the service industries, could not only be forced to stay home now to care for their children, but could lose their jobs as a result.”

“That is a lesson for wealthier New Yorkers in particular to consider as they work from home in the weeks ahead, perhaps ordering groceries to be delivered, counting on the hospital to be open should hey need it. A system that has left the working poor so vulnerable—without decent health care, child care and other forms of support—turns out to have created tremendous vulnerability for society as a whole.”

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