Just how badly did traditional public schools fail at meeting the challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic? So memorably and miserably badly that it has the potential to reset expectations going forward. No longer can parents expect the government, on its own, to educate our children. And no longer can public schools expect to educate children without partnering with parents in a meaningful way.

Before examining the future implications of the Covid-19 education breakdown, though, it’s worth taking some time to review the failure itself in full, gory detail.

Many of these public schools, let’s remember, were doing a poor-to-mediocre job of educating students to begin with, before the pandemic, as measured by standardized-test results, dropout and graduation rates, and other yardsticks. Even the “good” suburban schools, a lot of them, were coasting on the backs of their students and their families, not adding much value. As for the urban public schools, their performance can be summed up by the fact that parents who have the option of a charter school or even a partial private-school scholarship have been eager to accept any chance that might allow their child to escape.

Once the pandemic hit, the game was up. Way too many of these schools stopped even going through the motions of providing education.

The University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education reported on May 15, two months after widespread school closures went into effect, that 27 of the 82 school districts it tracked did not “set consistent expectations for teachers to provide meaningful remote instruction.” Thirteen of the 82 “do not require teachers to give feedback on student work,” CRPE said in an article headlined “Still No Consistent Plan for Remote Learning for Hundreds of Thousands of Students at Some of America’s Biggest School Districts.”

The American Enterprise Institute, reporting on what it says is a national representative sample collected through May 8, says less than half of schools were offering synchronous instruction, in which a student and a teacher are live online simultaneously. AEI also found that a substantial share of schools, more than 10 percent, had entirely given up on grading student work.

Garrett Thomas, an 8th-grade teacher, sorts through and organizes homework packets from Paterson, N.J., schoolchildren at Paterson Public Schools district offices.

Media accounts highlighted some of the most egregious failures. California stopped requiring educators to take attendance, EdSource reported. Even without mandatory formal attendance-taking, it was clear enough that many students weren’t showing up for whatever instruction was being offered. The Los Angeles Times reported in late March that about 15,000 of some 120,000 Los Angeles high school students were “absent from all online learning.”

School districts also failed on the technology front. For all the photo opportunities of schools handing out laptop and tablet computers, the reality was that even districts that offered online classes could not reliably guarantee that students could log on to them. In New Jersey, for example, a month into the school closures driven by Covid-19, about 100,000 students, or nearly 10 percent of those enrolled in the state, lacked the devices and Internet access necessary for distance learning, according to NJSpotlight.com. Technological ineptitude was underscored when virtual school-board meetings or classes in Ohio, Washington, D.C., and New Jersey were “Zoom-bombed” by hackers who used the videoconferencing platform to display pornography.

Rather than struggle through the complications and system deficiencies, some school districts in Georgia, Washington, D.C., and Nebraska officially declared that they were starting summer vacation early. Give them some credit for candor, at least.

Those seeking to measure the effects of the closures on student learning using the tool of standardized testing are, like so many of the students themselves, out of luck. The state-based accountability tests were almost universally abandoned amid the pandemic. This “data vacation” will make it harder to determine where students are academically when the crisis is over. It will be especially troubling for students who went into Covid-19’s upheaval behind in their studies, as attempts to catch them up in the future will be hampered by the absence of information about their learning.

Systemic Roadblocks

The pandemic put many of public education’s worst traits on full display.

There was the blame-up, blame-down bureaucratic phenomenon. Some state and local officials froze, claiming to be waiting for guidance from the U.S. Department of Education regarding the demand for equal services for special-education students. School districts called for direction from state departments of education, while state bureaucrats seemed to develop a newfound respect for local control.

There was “equity” paralysis, with at least some districts withholding online instruction for all students because, they said, it was impossible to provide the same level of instruction through that medium for special-education students. This ironically inequitable, all-or-nothing approach failed to thoughtfully triage the differing needs of children and left more of them than necessary without schooling. It also angered regular-education parents while leaving some special-education advocates feeling scapegoated by officials.

Children’s needs took a backseat to those of adults, particularly the political agenda of public-employee unions. The unions argued for reduced teacher work-hours at full pay and for blocking charter schools from enrolling students. The Oregon Education Association attempted to prevent the transfer of 1,600 students to a virtual charter school that was capable of serving them. The Pennsylvania legislature, under pressure from unions, defunded students who switched to virtual charter schools. Oklahoma passed legislation that would limit student transfers to virtual charter schools and double the amount of coursework virtual students must complete to be considered full-time. These were not measures intended to support parents and students or offer them the opportunities they needed. On the contrary, these were political moves intended to restrict families from accessing education through nontraditional means.

Sure, there have been a few encouraging examples of educators and school leaders rising to the occasion. Alaska took the pragmatic step of contracting across state lines with the Florida Virtual School to provide distance education for Alaskan students. School buses have brought meals to food-insecure families and, in some cases, have been parked in strategic locations to provide Wi-Fi access to households that don’t have it.

But the self-congratulation that has accompanied even the most perfunctory efforts at continuing basic services is so extravagant that one might think school-district employees were volunteers rather than paid government workers. In many cases, the pace of online learning in traditional public schools only picked up after parents demanded it or after school districts were shamed by press stories comparing their schools to better-performing charter or private schools. The traditional public schools weren’t leading the effort to continue learning. They were dragged grudgingly into it.

Parents as Partners

In more normal times, lip service is sometimes paid to the idea that parents are the most important determinant of children’s academic success. Traditional public-school systems, though, are often set up to educate children in spite of parents, rather than with us. When we show up too much, we’re helicopter parents. When we don’t show up enough, we’re the problem.

Whenever schools open, and in whichever form, the need for educators to see parents as true partners will be more urgent than ever before. Catching children up after the so-called “Covid slide” will be too big a task for the system to achieve alone.

Perhaps the failures of public schools during the pandemic will, once and for all, vanquish the illusion that the government can educate children without parents’ playing a major role. The newly visible reality has certainly been inconvenient for some parents stuck at home with young children for months on end. But it’s been true all along. And while the eventual resumption of in-person school will surely come as a relief, parents may want to pause before returning full responsibility for our children’s education to a system whose underlying, preexisting weaknesses were so embarrassingly exposed by the failed response to the virus.

This is part of the forum, “Did America’s Schools Rise to the Coronavirus Challenge?” For an alternate take, see “Schools went to Extraordinary Lengths to Serve Their Students,” by Michael Casserly.

Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.

Last updated July 1, 2020