Originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on July 15, 2020.
So exactly why do we want our kids to go back to school? Americans must answer this question honestly before we can figure out how, or if, to open K-12 schools this fall. And there are only two possible answers: the economic reason or the education reason.
The economic reason argues that unless our children go back to school, parents cannot return to work, and thus our economy cannot return to “normal.”
The education reason promotes our kids’ returning to school so that they may learn and develop into productive members of our future society.
To claim that we want both is to be disingenuous. Certainly, both outcomes are desired, but our current predicament demands us to choose now what our true motive is — for each reason has its own unique set of compromises to accept.
If we desire primarily to restore the economy to what it was before the coronavirus pandemic, to get back to full-time work and prior levels of consumerism, then we are advocating for schooling as it was — an 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m., Monday-through-Friday engagement for our younger generation.
This desire comes with the maximum level of risks to mitigate and consequences to accept if there is a breach or failure in our methods for infection control. The burden on our teachers and administrators in this scenario is so insurmountable it results in a decision stalemate — and in fact we see this now, with no district in the Bay Area having yet presented such a plan for fall despite schools scheduled to open in a few weeks.
If, however, what we want is based on education-first principles — to teach our young persons, in the best ways possible, what they don’t know and what they need to know, then the compromises are altogether different. We can then likely accept that certain parts of the American academic curriculum are expendable, well-intended fluff and filler added over the past decades.
Science and health, math, reading and writing are universally core and ought to be the focus of in-person instruction. Physical education, arts, music, language and many other electives can be deferred for now, or offered online, or eliminated altogether. (Was AP history really ever necessary, or was it just a fallout of the runaway college-admissions process?)
To be clear, I am not prescribing what classes are or are not important in a new schooling paradigm. I am advocating that we allow our educators to pare down the K-12 curriculum to what matters most right now, without the constraint of having to provide childcare for 7 hours a day. This is the only plausible approach for having some level of in-person schooling that is safe for our society. Students can be separated into smaller cohorts that attend in-person classes for fewer hours a day and fewer days per week, reducing the risk of virus transmission between each other and to teachers.
This approach is not free of difficult decisions nor without sacrifice to near-term economic growth as parents would need to continue to play an active role in their children’s day. But the benefits to American society of prioritizing education over economic and political expediency is immeasurable and enduring.
Restoring some level of in-person time between students and teachers pays dividends well beyond the short-term and is perhaps best stated by the Japanese proverb, “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher.”