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The Bottom Line The Chasm Spanning Public and Private Schools Continues in a COVID-19 Era

[Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up article from The Chasm Spanning Public and Private School COVID-19 Responses published September 21, 2020.]

There was a stark difference between public and private schools in how they handled the launch of the school year in mid-August to early September as a response to COVID-19. The situation is no different as 2020 comes to a close. Half of all U.S. public schools are closed either entirely or partially, as opposed to private schools who scrambled last summer to open on day one of their scheduled school year and have remained in full operation since.

Private School Responsiveness

In addition to providing in-person learning, private schools created alternatives for the small percentage of school families desiring their students to learn remotely. They solicited parent input, listened, and responded accordingly. Looking at data within a subset of the private school market reveals that 88% of Christian schools provided daily in-person instruction this fall. Eight percent provided a hybrid model (a combination of in-person and online), while only 4% kept their school campuses closed. Remarkably responsive, two-thirds of Christian schools offered distance learning as an option for families in addition to opening their campuses for in-person learning.

The 100 Catholic schools in Boston provide a striking example of this dichotomy between public and private schools. After four months of full operation of in-person learning in response to parent input, Thomas W. Carroll, Superintendent of Boston Catholic Schools, in an interview with Education Next, reflects:

On July 15, Boston and statewide teacher unions announced that public schools in Boston and elsewhere would open nearly three weeks late—and then remote-only. ‘When that hits the 6 o’clock news, the phones at 100 Catholic schools are ringing off the hook,’ Carroll said, joking that he should send a thank you note to the unions. ‘We picked up more than 4,000 students. My guess is about 80 percent of them were public school refugees’….Four months later, the concerns about school-based spread of COVID-19 seem, in retrospect, to have been misplaced. ‘We’re not aware of a single case of someone being hospitalized,’ let alone fatally infected, Carroll said. Active cases, among a population of 35,500 students, teachers, and staff, have been running in the dozens, ‘a tiny fraction of one percent,’ in Carroll’s words. The experience has been cited by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker and by the Wall Street Journal editorial board (“Covid and the Catholic Schools”) as a demonstration that in-person learning, properly done, is not a risk to public health.

Interview with Thomas W. Carroll, Superintendent of Boston Catholic Schools

The gulf separating public and private school COVID-19 responses center on one distinct factor — private schools view their school families as valuable customers, as opposed to public schools, the majority of which strongly prioritize teacher preferences over student needs.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos traveled the country this fall visiting public, private, and parochial schools that opted to safely reopen. As observed by DeVos, the leaders of schools that reopened “have can-do, get-it-done attitudes, and they put doing what’s best for students ahead of any other interests….At the same time, we’ve seen some of America’s largest districts refuse to open, not based on the recommendation of scientists, but because of political interests.”

Keeping Public Schools Closed

Teacher unions have been a driving force in protecting teacher “rights” by keeping public schools closed. Joshua Dunn explains:

Across the country, teachers unions have led the effort to prevent schools from reopening. In Florida, California, and Iowa, they have gone to court to demand that instruction remain remote. In Los Angeles, the union padded its opposition to reopening with additional demands to remove police from schools and to impose a moratorium on charter schools. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially proposed a hybrid-instruction model but relented when the union threatened to strike. Detroit teachers resorted to direct action, physically blocking school buses trying to pick up students for summer school. All of this was cheered on by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who threatened ‘safety strikes’ if needed to keep schools closed.

Joshua Dunn, Education Next

As a result, some public school parents, recognizing themselves as tax-paying customers, are speaking up. Others are taking legal action aimed at reinstating in-person learning. For example, Education Next reports that in California, “a group of parents has challenged an order from Governor Gavin Newsom that effectively barred in-person instruction for 80 percent of the state’s students.” With more than 6.1 million K-12 public school students in the state, that’s over 4.8 million students restricted from going to their school.

Important to note, teacher unions dismiss explaining why they won’t reopen when coronavirus data shows schools open for in-person learning aren’t leading to high spread infection numbers. They are aware of the harm to student learning and mental health yet continue to champion closed schools for safety sake.

The Daily Caller News Foundation contacted 15 teachers unions across 12 states affiliated with either the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) or the National Education Association. The DCNF asked what their positions were regarding school openings and what evidence supported that position.

Eight unions did not respond to the DCNF’s inquiries, while a ninth, the California Federation of Teachers, declined to comment.

The six unions that did respond stressed the importance of teacher and student safety, but few provided supporting evidence for their preferred policies other than general references to public health guidelines.

Thomas Catenacci, Daily Caller

Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey asserted, “Temporarily pausing in-person instruction and transitioning to remote learning will allow students to remain on track academically without any risk to their health.” Spanning from March through December with no reopening plans in place, the suspension of in-person learning is no longer in the category of temporary. No health risk is a gross exaggeration when student mental health has seen a sudden and steep increase during the period of time schools have been closed. A recent report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “found that since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there has been a 24% increase in emergency department visits by grade school children and a 31% increase for teens urgently in need of mental health care.”

Closed schools also mean that millions of students are unexpectedly not receiving adequate needed supervision during the day. The isolation, even abandonment, some students face is taking a substantial toll on their well-being, not to mention hindering their academic and social-emotional learning. This void of peer interaction not only has current consequences but also will have long-term negative effects as students are denied the personal skills development that comes from cooperation, communication, and collaboration.

Failing Despite Widespread Grade Inflation

While left to navigate their learning on a device, with significantly less teacher instruction and support, the data reveals remote learning in place of in-person school is not working for the majority of students. A mass educational exodus is underway as upwards of three million students have already cut ties with school this year alone.

Of those sticking it out, excessive numbers are failing, despite some districts and schools strongly encouraging teachers to inflat grades. For example, Creacy Brown, a Galveston, Texas, fifth-grade math teacher shared, “students in her school who failed a subject during the first marking period were given the chance to complete a “catch-up module” and bring their grade up to a C.” The situation is not unique to Galveston. “Some teachers are even changing their grading scales. One English teacher in California’s Coachella Valley said her school ‘strongly encouraged’ staff to adjust the lower end: What would normally get an F now gets a D, and Ds have become Cs.”

Similarly, teachers on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, “decided it was unfair to fail any students, and created their own grading scale: Students who were attending virtual classes or regularly turning in paper academic packets got As, students who turned in work occasionally got Bs, and students who didn’t turn in anything got Cs.” Combine more students failing than in past years with teachers overhauling their grading to keep students from failing, and the net effect is the “number of students truly struggling right now is likely larger than the alarming numbers being reported nationwide,” according to research by Kalyn Belsha of Chalkbeat.

When students who were successful at in-person schooling are now significantly struggling and failing, imagine how stifling and even devastating the subpar remote instruction is the youngest of students who need movement and hands-on learning, non-readers, non-native English-speaking students, and students with severe learning difficulties.

Deemed Non-Essential

The pumping of upwards of 700 billion taxpayer dollars into the U.S. K-12 public education system annually (more than any other country in the world) suggests that our students’ education is a priority. However, U.S. government funded schools have yet to be deemed essential, and public school teachers have been excluded from the category of essential workers.

Stephen Sawchuk and Catherine Gewertz of Education Week lament the illogical reality plaguing our nation: “Most U.S. states, the experts note, have put a higher priority on reopening local businesses, restaurants, and bars than K-12 schools. European countries, including France, Germany, and Ireland, have done the opposite and have prioritized keeping schools open.” They go on to note, as other countries and private schools have found, alternatives to keeping schools closed: “For example, districts could consider whether there’s any evidence of transmission in individual school buildings or classrooms….And, they could consider keeping certain classrooms or grades home, rather than shutting down the entire school.” What has worked successfully for private schools to reopen and remain open safely, without substantial COVID-19 relief money, should be feasible for public schools, especially in light of their government provided additional funding.

Complicated But Possible

Chester E. Finn Jr., Senior Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute, recognizes that reopening schools is complicated, “and when done intelligently and safely it’s not cheap. But it’s not impossible! That’s true of labs and hospitals, too, of fire departments and police stations and post offices…they’re all open. Because they’re essential. And so are the people who work in them.” He poses this telling question: “How would Americans respond if large numbers of doctors, nurses, policemen, firemen, and postal workers simply opted to stay home—and their unions defended them?”

It’s time for public schools to take their cue from private schools that have reopened safely across the nation and who deem their schools and teachers absolutely essential to student well-being and learning.