As schools close down yet again in response to the most recent COVID surge, it’s time to have a serious talk about schools in America.
This is not the time to dive into education statistics, or pen some screed against teachers unions, critical race theory, sex education, or the declining quality of measured educational progress in the children of America. Those can all be addressed at a later date with calmer voices where we can debate school board elections or the minutiae of school curriculum.
I’m not talking about education. I’m talking about schools.
With the possible exception of Social Security, public schools in America represent the purest form of essential infrastructure that the government provides. The classic dig at libertarians is that they don’t want the government building roads, but there are plenty of children living down unkempt gravel roads whose parents still rely on the stability and reliability of government-funded public schools.
Every state in this country requires children to attend school and every state offers the option of free public education to every child. The contract is this: Do you have a child? We have a school for them to attend. However wise this contract was or however good these schools are is entirely outside the point. This is the deal we have struck with parents for over a century, and they have built their lives around this deal.
In-person schooling is an essential social infrastructure. Maybe it shouldn’t be, but it is. People rely on it, and the fewer resources a family has, the more likely it is that they rely on in-person school to help them care for their children. We have built our supplementary social safety nets around the concept of in-person schooling. Public schools provide nearly 30 million daily meals to low-income students. Public schools are the first line of detection for domestic child abuse and the default point of childcare for millions of working Americans.
With this in mind, we must view every COVID-instigated disruption to schools not as a tool in our pandemic mitigation toolbox, but as the ultimate failure of government to uphold the essential social contract to which we have all agreed.
Every school mask mandate is a public declaration of our failure to secure stability for the most vulnerable in our society. Every new school restriction should be interpreted as the flailing of a hapless managerial class who, knowing they cannot impose new restrictions on a voting populace, decide instead to signal their bravery by punishing the citizen least able to object, least likely to suffer from severe disease, and who have no choice but to rely on the services of government for their day-to-day lives.
This goes for every school restriction. Quarantines, mask mandates, remote learning, and school cancellations are all embarrassing proclamations of failure. They are enormous signposts in the history of the pandemic that show how we thought that we could conquer this virus by punishing those least at risk. (READ MORE: Biden’s ‘Covid-19 Winter Plan’ Ignores Science)
Perhaps the most exasperating component of school policy has been the complete inability of parents to take control of the situation. Throughout this pandemic, I have often complained that parents’ voices are not heard; we are ignored and overlooked. The response I got in return (and perhaps this is my fault for existing on Twitter) is that I should get more involved in my local school board elections. Yet, when the elections in my Washington district came around, I faced three candidates vying for the exact same position who produced nothing but mealy-mouthed nonsense in their voter information pamphlet. It was impossible to know where they stood on the issue of schools and COVID, which was the only thing that mattered to me.
Every school mask mandate is a public declaration of our failure to secure stability for the most vulnerable in our society.
Even if my district had elected the “right” board member who understood the value of schools to the children of their district, there is no way to secure the right of the parents to demand schools be run as the community sees fit. The school district may make a decision that is overridden by the county health department. Or the mayor. Or the state health department. Or the governor. Or the CDC. Or OSHA.
Parents want to control what is happening in their children’s schools, but the modern system of government means that they need to control every inch of the chain of authority, from local school boards to state agencies to the federal public health bureaucracy. If even a single link in this chain of authority overrules them, parents’ priorities can be abandoned with a shrug and a smirk and an appeal to the authority they do not control.
This is why the figures of authority do not fear the consequences to students or the anger and frustration of parents. We have wrapped this core social infrastructure in layers of bureaucratic tape to a point where no one is responsible for any given policy or decision. Anyone can appeal to a higher authority and claim that they are just following the guidelines. Which, to be fair, they are. But this makes it impossible for parents to fix their electoral efforts on a target that will actually be able to do what they want. In Tennessee, an order from the governor to allow mask opt-out for school children has been blocked by multiple federal judges. In contrast, no state-wide mandates for masks in school have been blocked and judges have repeatedly declined to even hear cases from school districts begging to reclaim their ability to self-govern from an overbearing state executive.
If parents try to reclaim control on the state level, they are blocked with the argument that the state is usurping local control. If they try to exert control on the local level, that effort can be overridden by the state.
The officials who persist in school restrictions view things like school cancellation as “doing our part” to combat the COVID pandemic. To them, school cancellations are about reducing risk. In their minds, “doing something” is the best form of pandemic response. It cannot be denied that abandoning students, disrupting parents’ lives, and throwing the core social contract into chaos is certainly “something”.
But that “something” is ultimately nothing more than failure, and we need to see it and call it what it is. Every time a school closes down and abandons the most vulnerable in our society, that is a failure. The states and cities that close down more often are failing more. There are instances where closing may be unavoidable, but in most cases, that failure is a choice.
If one lives in a district that views this failure as acceptable, there does not seem to be any path forward for parents. If they are concerned enough, they can move to another district, but this is an option that is most available to the affluent and white-collar workers. It will most likely amplify the appetite for failure, as the remaining voters are either willing to accept these mitigations or less able to see the impact of these policies on children. As that population shift continues, the hope for relief from these restrictions dims, and social fractures that were visible before the pandemic become more obvious.
It shouldn’t be too much to ask that we adults take the fight for or against COVID restrictions and duke it out amongst ourselves. But we’re apparently going to fight this battle with our children on the front line.
Matt Shapiro is a data visualization expert and author of the Substack Marginally Compelling.