The next school year is approaching the Maine Department of Education and Maine school districts like a stalking predator. That predator is coming whether they like it or not.
Parents all over Maine have been asking one critical question for months: are we going to have to do this all over again?
The experiment with distance learning in Maine schools this spring was generally not a good one. We all tried our best, and no one (including me) blames state leaders for being cautious with the health and safety of our children and teachers. In the early days, we didn’t know a lot, and because of that it seemed prudent that we would keep kids home.
Luckily, my 13-year-old son happens to be in a school that seemed well prepared to deal with this adaptation, and he is a good student who works hard, so he ended up doing fine.
However that experience is hardly typical. Indeed, in his own school and in his own circle of friends, several kids did not do well academically and many struggled with unique stresses and mental health challenges that don’t fit neatly on a bar chart or spreadsheet.
Some kids did OK. But others learned very little and will be starting next year severely behind. Some even failed, unable to cope.
All kids — all of them — were socially isolated, not seeing friends, not playing sports, not gathering in the lunchroom, and not living their lives. And how many children have fallen through the cracks as schools have no longer been able to identify learning deficits, physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression, and thoughts of suicide?
District to district, our experience with distance learning varied wildly. In some Maine school districts — usually the wealthiest ones — things went OK. In others, the work being sent home was virtually non-existent and technological tools meant to facilitate collaboration and learning were non-existent. There are places in Maine that barely did any learning at all for months.
And none of this even begins to address the preposterousness of distance learning in the earliest grades.
My second child is due to enter kindergarten this year, and my wife and I have had what seems like a thousand conversations about what to do this fall. We don’t know what the state is going to recommend, nor do we know what school districts will ultimately do. The one thing we have more or less agreed on, though, is that if he has to go to school wearing a mask, with plexiglass between him and his classmates, with no or limited recess, and other severe restrictions, we will not be placing him in school, and will instead homeschool him.
How fortunate for me that my wife is a brilliant educator who has been staying home for a few years with our young children. Her expertise is early elementary education, and my son is already fortunate enough that, through her incredible support and work, he is reading and writing at a first grade level. So if we make that decision, we’ll be fine.
How many other Maine kids won’t be fine?
That’s the ultimate question that we are not hearing a lot about from policymakers. Yes, there is some risk associated with returning kids to school, but what are the risks from not returning? What are the costs? And more importantly, what is the probability of those risks, which are devastating, occurring?
The answer to most parents is that staying home is not only more risky, but more destructive to our children.
That is one of the many reasons why the American Academy of Pediatrics recently published recommendations regarding school in the fall, saying “the AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
The AAP further recommended that “policy makers should acknowledge that COVID-19 policies are intended to mitigate, not eliminate, risk.” Mitigation can be done safely and effectively, which is why countries like Australia, Denmark, Finland, Norway and New Zealand have been able to reopen their classrooms without seeing mass outbreaks.
We should be no different, but I fear bureaucrats and policy makers will bow to fear in order to signal their concern for safety, and in so doing will end up hurting thousands of Maine kids this fall.
Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.