President Donald Trump got a lot of pushback for his criticism of school reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—including from the CDC itself. But even many people who share the CDC's goal of minimizing health risks in the midst of a pandemic agree that the guidelines aren't especially practical. Keeping kids masked and separated in a learning environment intended for groups makes sense only to those who have little experience with schools—or children. That has lots of parents looking at alternatives such as homeschooling that allow them to implement their own guidelines not just for health, but for their kids' education.
"I disagree with @CDCgov on their very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools. While they want them open, they are asking schools to do very impractical things. I will be meeting with them!!!" the president tweeted on July 8. Not content to just voice his displeasure, he also threatened to cut federal funding for schools that don't fully reopen.
When Trump tweets, his critics automatically respond. California Gov. Gavin Newsom shot back that his state's schools will make their own decisions without regard to the president's desires. Fair enough—local decisions are usually preferable to one-size-fits-none orders from on-high.
But Trump isn't alone in finding the CDC's guidelines unwieldy.
"To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, school leaders must ensure social distancing—limiting group sizes, keeping students six feet apart, restricting non-essential visitors, and closing communal spaces. Those measures run counter to how schools usually operate, with teachers and students working together in close quarters, children socializing throughout the day, and the buildings serving as a community gathering space," Education Week noted in June.
"Schools are not designed for social distancing," Megan Tuttle, president of the National Education Association of New Hampshire, agrees. "Classes and hallways are already overcrowded and many of our schools have inadequate HVAC systems resulting in poor air circulation. These are prime COVID-19 transmission conditions. If we're not ready to make the investments necessary to make our buildings safe, then we're not ready to reopen them."
Leave it to a labor union official to turn a health crisis into an argument for a deeper dip into taxpayers' pockets even as the economy tanks… But Tuttle is right that schools weren't designed for keeping kids isolated from one another. That has educators across the country scrambling to un-crowd classrooms so that social distance can be maintained.
Remote learning via online classes, and hybrid approaches that have kids in school some days and learning remotely on others, are the go-to solutions for now.
"Through a mix of in-school and at-home learning we can make more space in every classroom and building. That means most kids coming to school 2 days a week," New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on July 8. His plan sets creaky wheels turning for the nation's largest public school district.
On its face, that hybrid plan is a reasonably innovative approach to teaching. Unfortunately, schools—particularly those run by government—are almost as incapable of successful innovation as they are at physically expanding the square footage of their classrooms and cafeterias.
"Some schools, particularly those with ample resources and some experience with remote learning, had a far easier time of it than most," reports the Wall Street Journal of pandemic-prompted efforts at teaching online. But for most schools, "it was a failure" because of inexperience with the approach, limited access to technology, and a lack of commitment on the part of participants.
In addition, many families, especially those with younger children, rely on schools to mind their kids while parents are at work. If you're going to lose the day care function of schools, and not be able to count on them to perform their core educational responsibilities, why wouldn't you look elsewhere? There's not much to lose in emulating Newsom's revolt against orders from on-high in favor of personal decisions about education.
Unsurprisingly, there's an upswing in families planning to homeschool their kids this fall, either through their own efforts or through dedicated online classes and schools that have experience with remote learning. While it's difficult to track numbers when it comes to homeschooling, "several states, including Texas, Utah and Washington, have reported sharp upticks in interest," according to NBC News. North Carolina's website for families announcing plans to homeschool crashed at the beginning of July "due to an overwhelming submission of Notices of Intent."
Parents asked about their reasons for pulling their kids from schools cite both concerns about their kids contracting COVID-19 in the classroom as well as worries that traditional school districts aren't up to the challenges of teaching through remote and hybrid models. They can either place their faith in an education establishment that hasn't earned that sort of trust, or they can experiment with alternatives that have grown increasingly popular in recent years precisely because they satisfy the demand for flexible and effective learning approaches.
"It looks like the high school is only offering a remote learning options," a friend who has three teenage daughters and lives outside Chicago told me. "Could you resend me that list you made of homeschooling resources?"
Why, yes. Here it is!
A lot of homeschooling options are online, given the low cost involved in delivering complete schools, classes, lectures, and the like over the Internet. The internet can also mean easy ways to order books, tools, and materials for families who prefer hands-on learning.
Splitting the difference between family-based education and institutional schooling is a growing movement of home- and community-based microschools that deliver lessons to small groups of kids. That allows parents who need to work to pool their resources while ensuring adult supervision. For a monthly fee (or free in Arizona), Prenda offers its curriculum for use by both microschools and by families for their own children.
All of this experimentation has the establishment worried. Harvard Law's Elizabeth Bartholet infamously calls for "a presumptive ban" on homeschooling because of the supposed danger it represents to children and society.
That prohibitionist impulse comes a little late. Traditional schools right now are fumbling the response to a crisis and convincing much of the public that they are dangerous to children and society. Families fleeing from those schools in search of alternatives are going to prove a tough audience for arguments that kids should be trapped in poorly managed classrooms that aren't up to the latest challenge.