This is an op-ed I published in the New York Daily News on Friday. It’s on the things we miss about schools when they close – a reminder about the nonacademic functions of school that are closer to our hearts than its academic functions.
What Kids Miss When They Go Without School
David F. Labaree
Often it’s only when an institution goes missing that we come to recognize its value. That seemed particularly this spring, when the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools around the world. Suddenly parents, children, officials, and citizens discovered just what they lost when the kids came home to stay. You could hear voices around the globe pleading, “When are schools going to open again?”
I’m not talking about the standard account of the value of schooling – the one that routinely appears in press, policy briefs, and the voluminous publications of the OECD. In this version, schooling is all about making sure that students learn the formal curriculum (math, science, language, and social studies) at a high level of achievement in order to turn them into productive contributors to economic growth. It’s a story of academic learning in service of human capital development.
This story is familiar, but it’s not what’s creating the demand by parents and students for schools to reopen as soon as possible. I haven’t heard people on the home front speak longingly about their desire to jump back into the academic production of human capital. So today I want to explore the other things that schools do for us. Here are a few, in no particular order.
Schools are a key place for children to get healthy meals. In the U.S., about 30 million students receive free or discounted lunch (and often breakfast) at school every day. It’s so common that researchers use the proportion of “students on free or reduced lunch” as a measure of the poverty rate in individual schools. When schools close, these children go hungry. In response to this problem, a number of closed school systems are continuing to prepare these meals for parents to pick up and take home with them.
Schools are the main source of child care for working parents. When schools close, someone needs to stay home to take care of the younger children. For parents with the kind of white collar jobs that allow them to work from home, this causes a major inconvenience as they try to juggle work and child care and online schooling. But for parents who can’t phone in their work, having to stay home with the kids is a huge sacrifice.
Schools are crucial for the health of children. In the absence of universal health care in the U.S., schools have served as a frail substitute. They require all students to have vaccinations. They provide health education. And they have school nurses who can check for student ailments and make referrals.
Schools are especially important for dealing with the mental health of young people. Teachers and school psychologists can identify mental illness and serve as prompts for getting students treatment. Special education programs identify developmental disabilities in students and devise individualized plans for treating them.
Schools serve as oases for children who are abused at home. Educators are required by law to look out for signs of mental or physical abuse and to report these cases to authorities. When schools close, these children are trapped in abusive settings at home, which gives the lie to the idea of sheltering in place. For many students, the true shelter is the school itself.
Schools are domains for relative safety for students who live in dangerous neighborhoods. For many kids, who live in settings with gangs and drugs and crime, getting to and from school is the most treacherous part of the day. Once inside the walls of the school, they are relatively free of physical threats. Closing school doors to students puts them at risk.
Schools are environments that are often healthier than their own homes. Students in wealthy neighborhoods may look on schools in poor neighborhoods as relatively shabby and depressing, but for many children the buildings have a degree of heat, light, cleanliness, and safety that they can’t find at home. These schools may not have swimming pools and tennis courts, but they also don’t have rats and refuse.
Schools may be the only institutional setting for many kids in which the professional norm is to serve the best interests of the child. We know that students can be harmed by schools. All it takes is a bully or a disparaging judgment. The core of the educator’s job is to foster growth, spur interest, increase knowledge, enhance skill, and promote development. Being cut off from such an environment for a long period of time is a major loss for any student, rich or poor.
These are some aspects of schooling that we take for granted but don’t think about very much. For policymakers, these are side effects of the school’s academic mission, but for most families they are the main effect. And the various social support roles that schools play are particularly critical in a country like the United States, where the absence of a robust social welfare system means that schools stand as the primary alternative. School’s absence has made the heart grow fonder for it. We’ve all become aware of just how much schools do for us.
Labaree is a retired professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education whose books include “Someone Has to Fail” and “A Perfect Mess.”