Last week, South Carolina governor Henry McMaster announced that he wanted schools to return to a five-day week starting in September. While this is problematic at best and disastrous at worst, with one South Carolina teacher describing the school districts and teachers “in open revolt,” McMaster does make one good point: according to WCSC, he told reporters that the state has not heard from over 10,000 students since the pandemic began. “Children have dropped off the radar, because they were not physically coming to school each day,” the governor says. While he went on to talk about them losing gains in education, this point is telling: even this toe-the-line Trump governor hints that school is so much more than education.
We’ve always known that school does more than just educate kids. But COVID-19 has proven it. COVID-19 has also proven that schools have picked up these roles because no one else was doing it. Now that we’ve lost our in-person school time, we’ve lost our safety net for these things, because we rely on school to do it for them.
More Than Education: Child Abuse Watchdog
A May 2020 paper from the Social Science Research Network says that they used county-level data to estimate the number of abuse cases that should have been reported in March and April. The number of cases, they admitted, would be expected to rise with children home all the time. In fact, the expected number was off by 15,000. They used data to prove that this was a direct result of school closures. More than education, schools serve as the first line of defense for abused children. They notice that kids are abused. They call the police. They make the reports. Every teacher I know has done their fair share of handling abuse allegations.
The Lens in New Orleans reports child abuse allegations are down by one-half since school closure began. Phoenix says they’re down by 21%. Dallas’s NBC affiliate says cases are down 43% across North Texas. In Nevada, the Reno Gazette reports that May saw a 30% total drop in child abuse reports statewide. In Nevada, about 3/4 of reports are made by mandated reporters— like teachers. Ryan Gustafson of Washoe County Nevada’s Human Services Division Director over Children’s Services says that, “Child abuse is very likely trending upward, not downward.” Schools are more than education: they’re the place we monitor children for suspected abuse.
Schools Are Daycare
This is problematic, but true. Governor McMaster points it out: “We must reopen our economy… People must go to work,” he told the press conference in Charleston. The insinuation, of course, is that people can’t go to work if they have to stay home and watch their kids, because we have no government safety net that provides for universal daycare. In other words: if you’re a low-wage, service-industry worker, you can’t pay for someone to watch your kid while you work— period. So for those people who aren’t privileged to work remotely, more than education, schools are a place to send your kids while you earn money to take care of them otherwise.
The Brookings Institute reports that nearly 34 million American workers have at least one child under the age of 14. 70% of them do not have any potential caregivers. Basically, these people— all 23.5 million of them— likely can’t go back to work until schools and daycares reopen. More than education, schools are the place you send your kid while you go to work.
More than Education: School Feeds Kids
According to NoKidHungry, 1 in 6 children in America are facing hunger, and 64% of low-income parents say it would be hard to feed their kids if they faced an unexpected crisis, like a car repair or medical bill. And do teachers see kids come to school hungry? 3 out of 4 do (and I think #4 isn’t paying attention). They regularly spend $300 of their own money each year buying food for their kids. I won’t tell you what my husband does, because it would embarrass him mightily, but: he knows who the hungry kids are, trust me, and they’ve been worrying him terribly since COVID-19 closures began.
More than education, school’s a place to go to get fed. And not just by altruistic teachers, but by school lunch and breakfast programs. Everyone knows that those programs might be the only meals kids get all day.
School Is Mental Health Care
The National Association of School Psychologists says that 1/5 of kids experience mental health problems during their school years. Up to 60% of those kids don’t get the care they need because of “stigma and lack of services.” But of the kids who do get treatment, about 66% do so only in school. The NASP points out that, “In some cases, such as rural areas, schools provide the only mental health services in the community.”
Think about how many kids lost their mental health care when schools closed. That number should terrify us.
Listen: this isn’t a plea for schools to reopen. I’m married to a teacher, and the very last thing I want is for him to stand in front of an in-person classroom this fall. The idea terrifies me. But something else also terrifies me: how much we’ve come to rely on our school to do more than education. They don’t just teach our kids. Teachers are, literally, babysitters. Schools find abuse. They feed kids. They provide mental health care. They also, in many cases, provide necessary health screenings (we had vision and hearing tests in school when I was a kid, and many schools also offer yearly dental screenings through local providers). Schools may be the front line to make recommendations about needed health care treatment (for example, that a child should be evaluated for depression or ADHD).
This is a plea for us to stop relying on schools to do everything. When we have no national system in place to pick up the childcare slack in the absence of formal schooling, that’s a problem. When we have no way to tell if a kid’s being abused short of teachers, that’s another problem (what about homeschooled kids, by the way? Talk about under the radar…). Why isn’t there a national program to guarantee food, stigma-free, to anyone who needs it— without the unnecessary hoops and ridiculous policies of our WIC/SNAP/whatever your state calls it program? Why aren’t we offering mental health care to the people that need it, stigma-free, and free of charge?
We shouldn’t need schools for all these things. We should have acceptable, workable alternatives. Schools shouldn’t be called upon to be so much more than education.