After A Full Year of School Shutdowns, What Will the Suburbs Do?

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When schools closed last March, kids were sent home with packets of worksheets and little access to teachers, even remotely. There was a long summer without camps or community activities. And then this fall, most kids got some half-baked hybrid education plan — half in, half out. Marching band and prom — school activities which are the center of suburban communities, sometimes more important than the academics — were cancelled. 

By now, older kids have simply given up and may be developing mental health issues that are not yet fully seen. The parents of younger kids haven’t been able to work and are deeply concerned that their kids haven’t mastered the basic reading and math skills. 

Parents of kids with special needs kids, like us, are stunned. The problems are so vast and sad that we can’t even find words to describe our reality. Our kids are not typically in local sports activities, so they’ve sat alone in the bedrooms or empty school buildings for an entire year. 

My son’s speech and social skills teacher has only now just returned to school. It’s hard to teach social skills through a Zoom call. Hard fought skills have been lost this year. By the point, we’re more depressed than angry. Anger is pointless. 

As of now, there are zero plans to create summer school programs or hire additional staff to help with learning loss or social-emotional damage. 

As schools slowly reopen, social distancing regulations ease up, and people get their shots, will there be any lasting political impact from all this? Will this year be like an Avenger’s Time Blip? Will we go back to normal soon? Or will there be lasting scars? 

In this week’s AtlanticEdward-Isaac Dovere says that schools closures could pose a serious problem for Democrats and Joe Biden. Suburban parents are pissed and won’t forget this year, he said. This year could turn the suburbs red. 

Here in the Jersey suburbs where things are particularly ugly, I’m not hearing people say that they’re switching parties. However, I am seeing a quiet exodus from public education. 

Enrollment in public education in my town, particularly in the lower grades, is down. In Montclair, 459 parents left the public schools. (That decline in enrollment is happening at our community colleges, too, but that’s a topic for another day.) Last fall, Anna Kamenetz at NPR reported that public schools around the country were seeing a decline in enrollment; I would love to see the new numbers. 

I’ve been studying charter schools and vouchers since the mid-90s. When I was in grad school and working full time at a policy institute, I led a project for the Ford Foundation looking at various state policies around charter schools. My team and I interviewed urban school reformers in Philadelphia, Chicago, and San Antonio. Later, I did my dissertation on the politics of school vouchers talking to politicians and reformers in Philadelphia and Cleveland. 

From all those conversations, I learned that urban education advocates were very much in favor of finding alternatives – anything – to the crappy schools in their neighborhoods. While suburbanites were content with public education, which benefitted from their extra tax dollars. 

Back in 2015, I wrote a little piece for The Atlantic about why suburban voters didn’t care about school choice

Soccer or lacrosse, Whole Foods or the farmers market, microbrew or Pinot Noir? Suburbanites tend to relish their many options for food and entertainment. At block parties, neighbors engage in hearty debates about the best place to vacation or the optimal car for shlepping one’s kids. So wouldn’t these very same parents—individuals who likely enjoy the privilege of choosing between a week on a beach or ski slope—want more choice when it comes to their children’s schools?

I again concluded that suburbanites simply weren’t looking for alternatives because they’re already satisfied with their traditional public schools. 

Now suburbanites are unsatisfied. What will happen? If they are paying for private schools, will they want help from the government in the form of a voucher or a tax credit? Will they want charter school status for those pods and garage-style schools that they were forced to set up this year? There are few suburban charter schools now, but will that change? We’re already seeing some states – including Georgia and West Virginia — passing voucher legislation. 

Are charter schools and vouchers the answer to public school woes? That is too big of a topic for a little newsletter. I just think it’s significant to note that suburbanites have lost faith in their schools and are ready to consider alternatives. If parents and public schools don’t mend their relationship in the next few months, we are going to see massive disruptions, which will go beyond education. What happens if a house’s value is no longer tied to quality of the local public school? 

We’ll have to see how schools rebound in the next few months. As part of my son’s usual Extended School Year for special education, some very exhausted teachers have promised full day in-person instruction, which might help him overcome some autistic tics that cropped up this year. If kids, schools, and the community recover, then public schools might regain the trust of my neighbors. If not, then all bets are off.

13 thoughts on “After A Full Year of School Shutdowns, What Will the Suburbs Do?

  1. Laura wrote, “I again concluded that suburbanites simply weren’t looking for alternatives because they’re already satisfied with their traditional public schools.”

    …because they’ve already made their choice by deciding to live in their particular neighborhood and school district.


    1. bj said, “I am very worried about what happens next in public education.”

      I’m concerned that any remediation is going to be the educational equivalent of all those plexiglass desk dividers that we just bought.


  2. I think one indicator for the future is whether Andrew Yang’s expressions of disappointment about the teacher unions help or harm his campaign for mayor. It does seem like a dangerous time for the public schools, and at least to me it seems the unions are pushing in directions which lessen support.


  3. In 2015, when our local school union struck before the beginning of the school year, for the first time in over 30 years, there was wide spread support of the union. Lots of parents saying things like “putting children first means putting teachers first” and starting FB pages called “soup for schools” which delivered food to teachers in picket lines.

    At the time, my kids were not in public schools (though some of their friends were) so we were not personally affected. I was wholeheartedly behind the teachers & the union at the time (though I can’t say how much my support was biased by not being personally affected). The news coverage shows broad support, though, so I don’t think I was the only one.

    I am not feeling that support right now. I heard the VP of the teacher’s union in a debate in which I honestly did not understand her goal. I think it might have been something along the lines of we have to fix everything that is wrong with the public schools (and, potentially the world) before we can open up again.


    1. bj said, “I heard the VP of the teacher’s union in a debate in which I honestly did not understand her goal. I think it might have been something along the lines of we have to fix everything that is wrong with the public schools (and, potentially the world) before we can open up again.”

      Oh, man.

      I’m looking at the dashboard for the local 8,000 kid suburban school district, and they’ve currently got 4 total active COVID cases: one 6th grader, one 8th grader, one 11th grader and one member of staff–no little kids. Ever since teachers and staff started getting vaccinated, there have been very few COVID cases among students and even fewer among staff. It used to be that there was roughly a 50/50 split between identified kid COVID cases and staff cases. And we don’t even know if that one COVID+ staff person was even vaccinated…

      This is not going to calm people down about variants, but there should be some studies soon with regard to how many new COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths there have been among vaccinated teachers versus unvaccinated teachers.


      1. My not-very-PC suspicion with regard to teachers and COVID is that staff who got it at school were probably getting it from each other, and that kids (especially little kids) were more likely to get it from their teacher than from each other. On the one hand, you have a little person who is about 4 feet tall and doesn’t speak very loudly or very much per class, and on the other hand, you have a full-grown adult who may spend much of the day speaking loudly and projecting their voice.

        But people are really committed to the kids-as-mosquitoes paradigm.


      2. It’s a question of relative risk. According to our state dashboard, there have been more cases in the 0-19 age group than any other group in the last two weeks.

        I would say that any place that gathers people from different households, talking, in rooms for hours at a time, will be an element of spread. Offices buildings and schools are risky.

        There is a new variant in Brazil which is reportedly more infectious and more deadly.

        But from the Brazilian jungle and northeastern coastal cities to the southern farming belt, doctors and hospital directors said in interviews with the Journal that the dangers from P.1 are overwhelming and obvious.

        “We’re seeing patients who aren’t obese, who have no comorbidities, who are not old but, even so, the virus just overwhelms them,” said Diego Montarroyos Simões, an intensive-care doctor in the northeast city of Recife.

        In Porto Alegre, where at least 60% of new Covid-19 infections are caused by P.1, the number of patients between 40 and 69 years old dying in the city has risen 125.5% since December, while total fatalities rose only 102.7%, according to official data analyzed by Álvaro Krüger Ramos, a mathematician at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

        I recommend the whole article. I don’t know if it’s behind a paywall.

        I am not calling for shutting everything down. It’s a race between vaccination and mutation. I am not calling for stopping international travel, either.

        The middle is an uncomfortable place to be. We had a discussion with cousins, who claimed they didn’t know anyone who had died from Covid. In our circle of friends and acquaintances, we know of 3 who’ve died, 2 of whom were in nursing homes. Many families have larger tallies. I think this has to influence one’s perception of risk.


    2. The conversation wasn’t even about covid risk — I’d connect it to what Laura said, about how suburban parents weren’t agitating for change because they had solutions that worked: big suburban schools that offered what they wanted and want it back. The VP of the union was trying to draw attention to the people who don’t have what they want or need. I entirely approve of that attention, but we can’t wait to open schools until all the problems are fixed.


  4. Ontario may end up an interesting test case. Our right-wing populist gov’t is cutting education funding for next year, putting the dollars cut directly into parents’ hands for spending money (at $400/child it’s in a weird space – not a lot of extra help, but it will pay for some day camp.)

    They are toying with retaining distant/virtual education permanently as an option.

    My high schooler who was thriving lost the plot this week and my email had emails from both his teachers. This might have happened in person but it feels more apocalyptic now.


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