Based on multiple data sources, the American public learned in 2021-2022 that public schools were not actually spreading COVID in the huge numbers predicted. Nonetheless, schools were still closed even after kids were eligible for vaccinations. The current estimate is that “about half of American children lost at least a year of full-time school.”
Children suffered as a result. Some teachers reported that it didn’t matter that they worked so hard to make school-at-home work for students. That the effort was a failure. That they should have stayed in school. Kids lost significant ground in reading, math, and other subjects. Low-income children and children of color fared even worse. Reported cases of depression in K to 12 aged children went up alarmingly and the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national children’s mental health emergency.
Shamik Dasgupta, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, who became an advocate for reopening schools, called the closures “a moral catastrophe” and noted that “It is clear that extended school closures were a mistake — they harmed children while having no measurable effect on the pandemic.”
PUBLIC SCHOOL ENROLLMENT
During this time, so many parents became alarmed at the quality of public schools that overall enrollment fell by 1.3 million (3%). The number of parents with “little or no trust in public schools” rose to 33%, according to a Gallup poll.
David Leonhardt, writing for the NYT on 4/28/2023, quoted an educator as saying, “It’s pretty undeniable that the last few years have been bad for public schools — even very bad.”
NPR Host Sacha Pfeiffer on the March 14, 2023, episode of Morning Edition, noted that “We’re now able to measure the impact of the pandemic on kids in schools. We know there was significant learning loss, now being reflected in test scores. An AP investigation found that almost a quarter-million children across 21 U.S. states are missing entirely from schools. And the CDC says teen mental health is worse than ever.”
IMPACT ON HOMESCHOOLING
It’s now a well-known fact that the number of kids enrolled in home school nearly doubled during and immediately following pandemic public-school closures. The question that seems to remain unasked is – if children suffered such academic losses while they were being educated at home, what do these losses say for the homeschooling model in general?
The temptation is to judge the losses against the entire concept of homeschooling. If kids were so damaged by being forced to school at home, how can homeschooling be good for them?
The answer is not in the homeschooling model as a concept. The answer lies in exploring the quality of the homeschool experience itself. What we have learned is that one teacher – no matter how well trained or how well intentioned he or she is – cannot be expected to provide quality education to 35 or 40 kids who may or may not be turning on their cameras during class sessions. 35 or 40 kids who have literally no opportunity to bond one-on-one with a “screen personality,” and who – as many teachers reported – have the option once role call has ended, to turn off their cameras and take a nap.
A DIFFERENT EDUCATION MODEL
First, and perhaps most important, we must recognize that “school-at-home” is not the same concept as is “home schooling.” What happened with public schools during the pandemic was that 58 million students and their teachers were directed by state and federal governments and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to attend public school at home via Zoom or more than twenty other options for online teaching. (20 Alternatives To Zoom For Online Teaching [Updated] (teachthought.com). Public schools were literally closed to any on-campus educational activity for nearly two years.
This is a decidedly different approach than homeschooling. In stark contrast to public “school at home,” home school students can learn at their own pace, have input to their own curriculum choices and, most important, have direct one-on-one communication with an online teacher or a real teacher or parent.
And – unlike public school attendance – home school students are, by and large, pursuing the education model by choice. Yes, they are required by law to attend school and complete grades K to 12, but many have made the decision to homeschool in cooperation with their parents, who recognize their child’s particular learning patterns and needs.
In defense of public schools and the school-at-home experience, it’s important to remember that most schools had little or no experience with remote instruction at the beginning of the pandemic. Teacher training in remote learning was mostly non-existent, appropriate software was not always available, and many students did not have reliable Internet access.
But the biggest differential was that of parental support. The lack of a stable home experience and supportive adults at home to help with their education, set thousands of students behind from the start.
Most traditional home-schooling models are established based on parental participation in a child’s education. The parent establishes a school, removes their child from public school and then becomes both teacher and administrator for the duration of their child’s education. Successful home school experiences generally begin because a parent recognizes they can add something valuable to their child’s education in terms of quality and breadth of instruction. Negative home school experiences are often based on an adult removing their child from school in order to delete something they see as having negative value rather than adding something of greater value.
It’s too early to be able to statistically compare the success of traditional homeschooling during the pandemic to the disappointing results of the public education school-at-home experiment. But we do know that pre-pandemic, numerous studies demonstrated that homeschooled children do better than their public-school counterparts in many areas, including higher grades in core subjects and the ability to successfully bond with their own parents. Because school lockdowns during the pandemic did not apply to homeschools, it’s a pretty safe assumption to conclude that home-school students maintained their previous advantage over same-age public school students. We’ll have to wait for the numbers.