COVID-19 Is Claiming Another Casualty: Public Education (Video)

The pandemic could be killing more than those infected with COVID-19.

Due to its impact on in-person instruction, it might also be delivering a death blow to American public education.

School districts are experiencing a noticeable decline in enrollment as they head into the winter months continuing the remote and hybrid learning models with which they began the year.

New York City schools alone have noted losing 31,000 students this fall.

Massachusetts public schools, 37,000.

Fairfax County, Va., over 8,700.

Los Angeles Unified School District, 11,000.

Orange County, Calif., 8,000.

Wisconsin public school enrollment fell 3%.

Chicago has seen its largest decline in two decades.

Parents are opting instead to homeschool their children or enroll them in charter, private, and parochial schools.

Carroll County, Md. public schools director of student services, Karl Streaker, told the Baltimore Sun:

 “We attribute a lot of this to the pandemic. We have experienced declining enrollment in Carroll County before, but I think the rate of this decline in such a short period is not consistent with anything we experienced.”

Washington state’s superintendent of public instruction, Chris Reykdal, added:

“As our nation continues to fight the spread of COVID-19, states across the country are seeing changes in K–12 enrollment as families make decisions about the safest and most effective learning environments for their children.”

While personal safety is a factor, school staff shortages due to mandatory quarantine orders are leaving districts no choice but to require students to engage with their teachers remotely.

Columbia University Teachers College professor explained:

“Unstable staffing patterns, unstable dollars, often lead to worse outcomes for kids. Especially during a pandemic when principals have already had to scramble to deploy staff in this complex mix of online and face-to-face instruction.”

With districts forced to close without warning when students and/or staff test positive for COVID, parents are confronted with frustrating childcare issues at a time when many are struggling to maintain employment.

Molly Watman, a Brooklyn parent of three, who enrolled her second- and fourth-grade children in a Catholic school that offers full weeks of in-person instruction, said:

 “I feel guilty about leaving [P.S. 130] because I want public schools to be amazing. But I also want to work. How do you reconcile those things?”

Even when the pandemic is behind us, the damage to public education will continue.

Student disengagement is a factor since it could lead to higher drop-out rates.

Manhattan Institute director of education policy, Ray Domanico, said:

“Some of these kids might just be gone. I’m really worried about that.”

State funding is another blow.

Since states subsidize their public schools on a per-pupil basis, with fewer students comes fewer programs, services, staff, and funding.

The New York State Council of School Superintendents Deputy Director, Bob Lowry, warned:

 “Enrollment losses pale in comparison to the overall fiscal outlook.”

Chris Reykdal added:

“Counts are taken every month, and if these trends continue, many of our districts will need to make adjustments in the short term even as they plan for booming kindergarten and first grade classes next year.”

In a system that still funds schools with property taxes, it means poorer districts will, as always, suffer the most.

Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker said:

“If you’ve got a district where 70, 80% of the money is coming in state aid based on some enrollment count number, which would tend to be a poorer district serving a higher share of low-income and minority students, those districts stand to lose a lot if the state decides to follow through with using this year’s enrollment counts as a basis for funding in the future.”

Thomas Jefferson once said:

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

Public education provides all students, regardless of socio-economic status, opportunities to learn basic skills they wouldn’t necessarily acquire in their homes or communities.

It provides students access to information, ideas, peers, and clubs.

To low-income students who come from homes experiencing food insecurity, it frequently is the only opportunity to access healthy food.

It often is the most consistent and structured aspect of students’ lives.

In that, it is the great equalizer.

A weakened public education system exacerbates growing income inequality and class divide.

Independent schools are not required to educate all students as public schools are, and parents who choose to send their children to private schools are usually upper-middle to upper class.

This means private schools often have more money to spend on technology and other learning resources, and boast smaller class sizes while maintaining full-week in-person instruction.

Austin, Texas parent Megan Olshavsky has decided to keep her kindergarten-age son, Jonah, in a small Montessori school.

She explained:

“The inequity of the situation is just really staggering. We were basically able to pay to keep our kid in a safe learning environment.”

University of Notre Dame economist Chloe Gibbs cites decades of research underscoring early childhood enrichment, especially children from lower-income and less educated families, stating:

“We have consistent evidence that these kinds of interventions can have big effects on children’s both short-term skill development, but really importantly, their long-term life chances. Parents may be choosing not to send their kids to pre-K or to hold back their age-eligible kids from kindergarten. And that could be fine for kids in terms of their skill development, if they are in homes where they’re reading a lot.”

Some educators and researchers are already painting an ambivalent picture.

Tech companies’ educational encroachment was, of course, happening before the pandemic. Now that the pandemic has provided no other alternative but fealty to those companies, they are riding in like knights in shining armor helping to forge a wider gulf between the economic class.

New York educator Tom McMahon explained:

“Coronavirus has unmasked something teachers across the world have known for years: Education is about the haves and have nots. Being thrust into a virtual learning model is much easier for students and teachers that have access to technology at school and at home, while it is nearly impossible for those without. The divide between these groups of students has never been more apparent and is something our country must address. Our children deserve a top quality public education regardless of their zip code.”

There is no facet of society the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump administration’s woefully amateurish response to it will leave unscathed.

But there is nothing more important than education, and when that suffers, we all suffer–for generations.

Image credit: Flickr

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to The Left Place blog on Substack, Liberal Nation Rising, and Medium.