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COVID-19 Proves Our Schools Are Social Service Centers First, Education Institutions Second


There is no way the 180-day (or 1,080 hours) school year can be completed by the end of previously established school calendars for this year given the fact that spring break has now already been effectively extended an additional two weeks. One option would have been to extend the school year into the summer. Given the level of family togetherness being experienced now, and the fact that incomes are being lost and many would be interested in making up the losses, it’s not unreasonable to expect vacation plans to be radically remade or canceled anyway. Instead, Oklahoma’s State Board of Education precipitously closed the schools and did not call for an extension of end-of-school dates. Thus, the summer option has been foreclosed.

The State Board is within its rights. Oklahoma statutes (70 O.S. § 1-109 E) state, “A school district may maintain school for less than a full school year only when conditions beyond the control of school authorities make the maintenance of the term impossible and the State Board of Education has been apprised and has expressed concurrence in writing.”

So on March 25th, the State Board of Education effectively suspended school activities in school buildings for the rest of the year by closing school buildings. Emergency rules have been promulgated that mandate all school districts implement distance learning. Undoubtedly, this has brought about a good deal of frenetic, and very real, work activity in districts that had never planned for widespread distance learning, have no expertise in distance learning, and are in the unenviable position of having to start effectively from zero to get something up and running.

Nonetheless, an official State Department of Education document says “Districts are expected to continue providing learning opportunities for students through the end of the school year and thereby afford students the opportunity to earn grades.” That vague statement doesn’t mean anything like truly rigorous learning will occur. The fact is that a significant portion of the current school year is being lost. While distance learning has proved effective, this is true when the people implementing it have had time to get it right. The public schools, in an emergency, have not had that time. 

Teachers throughout the state would be introducing new material to students right now. New assignments to better cement content in students’ minds, and to assess their progress, would have been given. Some of the loss in learning can be made up next year. Much of the beginning of any school year is review, but graduating seniors have now had their last crucial year in high school cut short. And there is no denying that the suspension of school for over two months represents an educational setback in a state that really cannot afford any educational setbacks.

Meanwhile, schools continue to deliver meals. In fact, odds are that the hardest-working people at our schools right now are food preparers and those who are passing out the food. While it’s true that food is an absolute basic necessity while learning is not, it is also true that the survival of our civilization turns on education. 

As the philosopher/political theorist Hannah Arendt put it, “Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children’.” And as economist Thomas Sowell has put it, “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.”

It is this mission, expressed so bluntly by Sowell, to civilize and educate each new generation, that the public school system was originally organized to accomplish. Given what we spend on them, they do not do it well, even when they aren’t being shut down by strikes and virus panics. But it seems they do a pretty good job of keeping the food mission open, no matter what. 

And this is the problem that the Wuhan virus has brought into stark relief. The public education system really should have only one mission – to educate kids – and should focus on that mission to the exclusion of all else. And if it were focused on that mission, perhaps the State Board would have extended school into the summer.

Instead, we have given public schools the mission of providing nutrition, the mission of providing transportation, the mission of providing mental health services, the mission of providing general health services, the mission of providing daycare (pre-K), and the mission of providing local entertainments. Public schools’ education mission has become secondary, at best, and it shows. So they’re still open to deliver meals, but they’re effectively closed to deliver educational content.

Byron Schlomach is Director of 1889 Institute. He can be contacted at bschlomach@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.

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