Monday, August 03, 2020

This Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic continuing to surge in the US and elsewhere, some school districts have already opened and others are hot on their heels. And as could easily be predicted, districts in Mississippi and Indiana have already reported positive Covid-19 tests, requiring quarantining, despite precautions. The largest district in Georgia has reported 260 cases amongst staff as they returned to classrooms to prepare for reopening. And a YMCA summer camp recently, despite requiring evidence of negative tests, staff masking, and health screening when the campers arrived, still sparked an outbreak with positive cases numbering in the hundreds. As long as we insist on putting children together in large groups, there will be outbreaks no matter how careful we are. 

As things now stand, it looks like more and more schools across the country will be opening in the coming weeks, despite clear evidence the pandemic is nowhere near under control in much of the US, and the common knowledge that schools are always major contributors to the spread of pretty much anything that's going around.

The pressure is on from all sides. In some places, like Arizona, governors are so keen to jump start their economies that they are threatening punitive budget cuts to schools that don't restart in-person instruction in their schools. Families are struggling without the free child care that schools provide while our governments dither over providing the financial relief that out-of-work and furloughed parents need to put food on the table. Meanwhile, other parents and teachers are pushing back, protesting against plans to reopen, not wanting to expose their children or themselves to a virus that has already been deadly to over 150,000 Americans.

We all know the outline of the arguments and, frankly, there are clearly no good solutions right now when it comes to schools. For many of us, it's either brave illness or brave poverty. Some families are choosing the former, not because they aren't afraid, not because they don't love their children, and not because they aren't worried that their children will bring the virus home to more vulnerable household members, but because they can't afford not too. What a horrible, horrible choice they are forced to make.

I'm not saying that school districts and teachers aren't doing the best they can, but what they are being asked to do is impossible, especially when it comes to younger children who will be expected to behave in ways that are not just unnatural for them, but contrary to their highest and best interests. Maybe this school or that school will manage to avoid an outbreak, but there will be outbreaks, many of them, and there is no way to tell in advance where those will be. Naturally, most parents are nervous, and many of those who can afford it, are going to refuse to send their children back to in-person schooling for the foreseeable future. 

This might turn out to be a good thing for everyone. One of the most important ways to slow the spread of any communicable disease is to "spread out," something that is not possible in typically crowded classrooms. I'm hoping that enough parents opt to keep their kids home that things are simply not so crowded. That alone would be a good thing.

Speaking selfishly, I'm glad our daughter is no longer a child, but were she a preschooler, I know I would be doing whatever belt-tightening I needed to do in order to keep her at home this fall. I'm not particularly afraid of getting sick, but I am concerned about my own parents, my mother-in-law, and most of my adult friends who are, because of their age, in the higher risk categories. And while I've bucked and bridled at each new restriction, I also feel it is my moral and ethical responsibility as a citizen to do my part in slowing the spread of this virus. 

Of course, being a preschool teacher with over 20 years of classroom experience, my stance probably falls into the category of "that's easy for you to say," but I know I'm not alone. In other words, I have no doubt that the coming months will see a surge in the number of families opting out of preschool, creating a generation of pandemic homeschoolers. This might not be such a bad thing. After all, there is no compelling pedagogical or developmental reason to send our youngest citizens to school at all. It's right there in the name: preschool. What young children should be doing, from a pedagogical and developmental prospective, is to play. What they need is an environment in which they are free to ask and answer their own questions and, frankly, much of what we call "school" doesn't jibe with what we know children need most. Already, we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that some families, at least, are considering never going back to preschool, let alone "big school." Many parents have had their eyes opened to their children, their capacities, their competencies, and their drive to educate themselves through their own self-selected activities. Of course, there are the challenges of boredom, of independence, of trying to balance working from home with caring for children, but from what I'm hearing and reading, there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of us who have been forced by the pandemic into "homeschooling" and have found it's not looking so bad. In fact, if my mailbag is any indicator, many have already decided they're never going back.

Over the weekend a friend said to me, "The world will never be the same." Many major employers in my neck of the woods are already encouraging their employees to work from home until well into next year, a move that I believe is a harbinger of a permanent shift to more stay-at-home workers. Many smaller preschools and child cares will never reopen. Entire sectors of the economy are having to figure out ways to transform how they do business and I think that includes education. Some of these changes are temporary, but as my friend pointed out, what the pandemic has done is to accelerate some changes that were already happening, just at a much faster pace.

Homeschooling falls into this category. Even before the pandemic, the number of families opting to homeschool their children was increasing at a rate of around 2-8 percent annually, which accounted for 3-4 percent of all school-aged children. I don't know how many pandemic homeschoolers there will be, but there will be a substantial number, and many, I know, will never turn back. Of course, some will simply try to recreate "school" in their homes, which won't necessarily be an advantage to children (and which is why I don't really like the word homeschool -- it's too suggestive of "drill and kill" academics for me), but many, especially the parents of younger children, will take the evidence-based path and free their children up to learn the way nature intended: through play. This is a revolutionary time and I believe that from the hell of pandemic there is a real opportunity here, a silver lining if you will, an possibility to embrace childhood play as it deserves to be embraced. This will be a boon for not just children, not just for families, but all of us.

Back in February, before we knew what this pandemic meant for all of us, I wrote The Time for School is at an End. Nothing has happened to change my mind and, for better or worse, we may have the pandemic to thank for that.


Although the summit is over, you can still join the dialog. Go to The Play First Summit page, register for free, then choose the all-access pass that is right for you. You will then have unlimited lifetime access to our conversations with twenty of the world's top early childhood and parenting thought leaders, including Janet Lansbury, Peter Gray, Lisa Murphy, Ijumaa Jordan, Maggie Dent, and Cheng Xuequin (Anji Play). This is not just another series of lectures, but rather a collection of conversations about our challenging times, how they are impacting young children and families, what we can do about it, and how we might seize this moment to transform the early years into what they ought to be for children everywhere. 

Also, Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in the UK, Iceland, and Europe thanks to my friends at Fafunia! It's also available in the US and Canada. If you want to go directly to the Fafunia page click here.  And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well.

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