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COVID may force a reckoning for public schools, by John McGauley

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We got some sick public schools, and I’m not just referring to COVID-19, although that’s forcing them to swallow some medicine whether they like it or not.

Our local public schools were coming apart at the seams before COVID hit, and a couple of years from now, after the chaos of the virus subsides, we’ll be looking at a different institution.

We have short memories, but it was only a year ago when the Keene School District was blindsided by a controversy over a charge by the teachers union that out-of-control students were injuring and harming teachers, actually sending some to the hospital.

The flare-up came to be because of leaked letters the district says were not supposed to become public, prying open a scenario for public observation about just how ungovernable the classrooms had become, leading to an official grievance by the union to state education authorities.

What this demonstrated to taxpayers, many of them parents, was that our schools were hiding from us just how chaotic they were, with teachers powerless to maintain even a veneer of order and administrators who punished the whistleblowers who dared to let it be known to the public.

Both sides – the union and the administration — quickly clammed up, and the story was smothered because nobody would talk. I suspect a deal was made in order to reel in the dirty laundry line that had accidentally been placed on public view. The state bureaucrats got involved, lawyers were hired and the thing brushed under the rug, as lawyers and bureaucrats are wont to do. Nothing to see here, folks, move along; we eat up most of your real estate taxes, but you’re not entitled to know what’s actually happening here.

The dumpster fire that is COVID-19 has affected everybody, but schools might be what will change the most because of it.

Here’s why:

One, there will be families that choose to continue schooling their kids at home after the virus abates. Why? Because they’ve done it now for months and some found it effective.

There was already, before COVID, a small minority of families that chose to home-school, for different reasons, among them the rationale that parents can do a better job instructing their children than public schools offer. Or perhaps they felt they can expose their children to spiritual concepts, whereas public schools avoid that. Or, they felt public schools were chaotic and out of control, they didn’t want their kids around other kids who were just dumped into the public schools from homes with no supervision and even less concern.

Before COVID, about 2.5 million kids were homeschooled in the United States, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Sounds like a lot, but it’s only about 4 percent of all school-age children.

But let’s say that number doubles post-COVID, to about 8 percent of all school children.

Two, COVID-19 and the chaos it has caused in K-12 education will accelerate the number of teachers who elect to run for the exits, either by simply quitting or taking retirement a few years earlier. On average, before COVID, about 30 percent of new teachers abandoned the field within two to three years of starting the job. That percentage may climb to 40 percent as even more decide to transfer to different careers.

Who can blame them? Would you take a job where you face unruly kids all day, with no power to discipline them, and no backing from administrators who are more concerned with avoiding lawsuits, meeting bureaucratic testing requirements, and imposing silly and inefficient rules on you?

Three. COVID hit K-12 schools as the effects of a significant depopulation trend were being felt. The number of babies born in the United States hit the lowest level in more than three decades in 2019, continuing a five-year downward trend, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Put simply, there are fewer little humans around to teach.

Four. COVID placed the American economy in a blender and the puree that’s coming out is an unpleasant mess of less money for everything — medical care, food, transportation and yes, public education. And, remember, too, that we still have opioid addiction, homelessness and a looming eviction crisis. The roads still have to be paved, water and sewerage provided, and police and fire protection maintained at a suitable level. Get in line, public education, you’re going to be given less. We’re all restaurants now.

This coming fall, I predict there will be a few COVID cases in our schools, and they’ll be shut down again until the second semester starts in 2021.

For the next decade we’re going to have smaller public schools, fewer students, fewer teachers and more families shouldering education either through homeschooling or sending their kids to private schools.

I’ve written this before, that our public-school system in the past four decades flip-flopped from helping the talented and motivated students achieve more, to a system that revolves around, and is dictated by, the bottom 20 percent — the surly, undisciplined, out-of-control students from families that don’t give a damn.

The public schools have a choice, post-COVID: improve, or get much worse.

John McGauley, an author and local radio talk-show host, writes from Keene. He can be reached at mcgauleyink@gmail.com

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