The Disappearing Social Safety Net: Public Schools

Sondra Cuban and I jointly wrote this post.

Sondra Cuban is a Professor at Western Washington University and an educational sociologist studying the trajectories, aspirations, and struggles of women immigrants. She is the author of Deskilling Migrant Women in the Global Care Industry (2013) and Transnational Family Communication: Immigrants and ICTs (2017).”

One of our greatest social safety nets has vanished in the blink of an eye. Before the pandemic, schools were societal safeguards in having legal custody of children and youth six to 12 hours a day, granting credentials, and providing meals, social and medical services.  Now with schools closed, the importance of schools to not only parents but all citizens has become obvious.

This is the first time in a century since the flu pandemic of 1918 that government has decommissioned public schools. They are ghosts standing in our communities, unused, with yellow tape around playground bars and slides. Uncertainty over re-opening dates breeds anxiety as superintendents fumble to communicate with teachers, parents and families during the crisis.

Turn on the television to see the absence of leadership at the very top. The U.S. Department of Education website only has flow charts posted in March for whether  schools should close. No one in authority knows when they will reopen other than in the fall, creating a quiet storm in every community about what to do with children and their wellbeing as well as the health of families.

Early responses came from state governors. Because the virus spreads rapidly in crowds, gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited. Schools, sporting and entertainment events, and businesses closed. The economy ground to a halt. By mid-March, 45 governors had acted shutting down businesses and schools for the rest of the academic year. Yet they’ve given little guidance to school systems or details about what is to happen in the interim. Furthermore, libraries, partners in literacy to schools, are also closed. Another loss.

By late-March, it has become clear that school districts were caught with their pants down.  In a recent American Enterprise Institute survey schools in the U.S., less than half (43 percent) of the districts had a plan for shifting from face-to-face instruction to online instruction and home teaching. Two weeks later the percentage had gone to 71.  But a PDF plan is far from what actually happens. Individual school (there are 13,000-plus districts with 100,000 schools in the U.S.) principals, teachers, and staff contacted parents and students through email and phone.

Schools in these districts with plans put some version of a remote education program into place. Often, however, no clear instructions were sent telling whether all students had to go online or whether participation was voluntary. For example 35 percent of the schools doing online instruction offered materials and expected students to participate. Nearly two-thirds did not.

With the shift to distance instruction, access to computers and the Internet revealed anew the digital inequities that mirror societal inequalities. Many big cities had to distribute laptops and tablets to students—they were either delivered or picked up at local schools. New York gave out 300,000; Chicago announced 100,000 computers; San Diego. 40,000.  But distributing computers does not guarantee teaching and learning in the home because many families lack adequate broadband and WiFi access.

Moreover, computers and distance learning is, at best, a pale substitute for in-person teaching and student learning. Many private schools including those that avoided leaning on electronic devices before the pandemic (e.g., Waldorf) have continued their curriculum delivery online but this doesn’t mean that the quality of education has remained the same or that learning is happening.

Also beyond computers, big city districts fed children and families. San Diego, for example, provided nearly 400,000 meals.

The AEI survey also showed that by the first week of April, 91 percent of the school had plans for feeding students. When the survey asked for specifics beyond plans, results showed that two-thirds of the schools had meals available for daily pick up at the schools. School delivery to students’ homes or at bus stops were occurring in 30 percent of the schools. Mostly in urban districts, these meals are crucial to families when parents have been laid of from their jobs.

As the crisis unfolds and national leadership staggers from one policy to another (forget the U.S. Department of Education providing any direction), governors of large states have filled the vacuum but so much remains to be done before the health of Americans can be securely protected and the economic engine revved up again. And what of schools?

One clear lesson about tax-supported schools that has emerged so far from the response to the pandemic is that public schools are an essential part of the nation’s social safety net for the poor and working and middle class Americans. Public schools, often taken for granted, have become crucial contributors to supporting Americans beyond teaching and learning.  

Even with social security, Medicare and the American Affordable Care Act of 2010, ragged holes in the safety net continue to let middle-age and younger working and middle-class Americans slip through. Now public schools, often unnoticed, have become crucial contributors to supporting Americans beyond textbooks, tests, and homework.

If there is one group of Americans who have seen this previously taken-for-granted role for public schools most clearly it is the children’s caregivers, especially working and single Moms. Working mothers do their jobs remotely while being required to organize daily schedules for children to use online lessons or packets sent by the teachers, or they create their own curriculum from the Internet. Ironically, many parents have previously tried to reduce screen time for their young children and now schools require even more screen time to complete lessons. 

Juggling their paid work assignments–for those not furloughed by their employers–while monitoring school tasks children are expected to complete easily slides into a three ring circus during the day. “Some days,” one single Mom said, “I feel like I’m melting.” Other parents have to leave children home alone in order to go to work and they worry about them all day.

In districts where schools expect parents, untrained to teach and not compensated by the government, to supervise lessons or figure out how to sustain their child’s attention while the dog yaps for his walk, well, those working parents have come to really appreciate–no, downright admire–what teachers do daily.  During this pandemic-caused lockdown, the crucial role of public schools as another part of the national social safety net has becomes all too apparent.

In the economic recession that surely will follow in the months after Covid-19 eases (and we hope disappears), district budgets will be further trimmed even as relieved parents bring their sons and daughters to re-opened schools.  Tax-supported public schools have shown how woven they are into the social safety net that is supposed to allow all Americans to not only survive natural and viral disasters but also protect them sufficiently to thrive in the aftermath of such calamities. 

We hope that heightened respect, even admiration, for tax-supported public schools, will result from what this 2020 pandemic has wrought.  And that added respect for school in this society will morph into political and financial support for a community institution that has too often been a public punching bag.



Filed under raising children, technology use

6 responses to “The Disappearing Social Safety Net: Public Schools

  1. “school districts were caught with their pants down”. In what respect? The fact the schools had not planned for a global pandemic does not seem abnormal. I am a teacher. There are a lot of things I have not planned for. A real life “Red Dawn”, (invasion by Russian supported Cubans) is another thing we have not planned for. Plan for every possible contingent and there will be no time to make lesson plans. Why should the US Dept of Ed have anything on their website? It is a totally powerless agency with no real “person of authority”. Education is at the State or, like in my state, purely district level.

    I am not a fan of the present administration. I would call it an incompetent leading sycophantic idiots and there is an extreme lack of leadership up there but we have to be real, planning for something like what we are going through is near impossible.

    I am lucky, I teach at a private school where most students have internet. My public school teacher friends are not so lucky. I have mostly proactive parents who care about their student’s education. Public schools are not so lucky.

    Talking to my public school teacher friends it is obvious where leadership fell through, at the local school level where it was most important. Incompetent and ambivalent principals and a large minority of sub-standard teachers willing to accept a windfall paid vacation are destroying many parents faith in public education.

    One of the public high schools in a nearby city ended the school year May 30 because they were not getting a 50% online response from students. Were does the fault lie there?

    Where public schools were “caught with their pants down” is in poor administrators who could not plan quickly, a tenure system the keeps incompetent teachers on the job and parent/student ambivalence towards education. It is economically and politically impossible to fix that situation.

    • larrycuban

      You make a good point, Garth. Perhaps the phrase you quote is an overstatement. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Pingback: The value of school « Light Offerings

  3. dolphinwrite

    From what we understand, the youth of this nation are extremely fortunate. Many are discovering how much they can learn at home. Parents and their children have access to texts, books, resources, online schooling, and more. And at home, perhaps two or three parents bringing their kids/teens together, can learn without disinformation and distraction. They have more time to get work done, then research topics of interest, careers even, and do more hands-on. While we support schools that truly teach, which is becoming not the norm, we also realize young people can do so much on their own.

  4. dolphinwrite

    This could be a fantastic opportunity for many of our youth to embrace individuality, that they can learn much on their own with all available resources, online and otherwise, even start their own businesses. I discovered, due to circumstances, looking back, how much I can do with my own motivation and resources. This is a lesson I’ve encouraged in others. The better I did teaching, the less the students needed me. So I upped the lessons and projects, hoping they would realize how much they can do on their own. I told them, I’m there until they are ready to go out on their own.

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