Opinion  /  Rick Hess Straight Up Blog
Educational Groundhog Day

Editor's Note: Education Week Opinion welcomes a diversity of opinions and voices with the goal of encouraging broader discussions about education.

The Education Week Opinion blogs are written and curated by the Opinion bloggers. Julie Gunlock was invited by Rick Hess to write three guest posts on his blog--the one below, this one, and this one. Education Week has no relationship with Julie Gunlock and does not condone or endorse her behavior on social media, including Twitter.

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This week we're fortunate to be joined by the flat-out funny Julie Gunlock, the director of the Independent Women's Forum's center for progress and innovation. If you don't know Julie, who isn't really an "education" professional, you're in for a treat. A onetime congressional staffer, Julie is a contributor for outlets including the New York Post, Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, and Forbes; the author of From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back; and a mother to three boys. She'll be putting on her parenting hat and will spend the week sharing her questions, concerns, and frustrations with how "back to school" has been handled this year.

— Rick

I used to love the movie "Groundhog Day" ... until I started living in Groundhog Day.

In the spring of this year, when my kids' schools were shut down due to COVID-19, I wasn't at all happy with the all-virtual program the school scrambled to put together. But you don't want to be a jerk and gripe after the first week. Actually, I didn't gripe at all at first (well, OK, maybe I did to my husband and a few other moms). I felt we needed to be patient. After all, no one predicted that just about everything in America would shut down.

In mid-June, after school had been let out for the summer, I wrote a long-form essay about my children's experiences with online learning, how my youngest (still in elementary school) had pleaded with his teacher to give him paper worksheets instead of online assignments, the pressure my kids felt to master the multiple online platforms, and their need for better guidance and more regular communications. I also wrote how frustrated my kids were not knowing if assignments they'd turned in were ever received and how I had trouble keeping them motivated after they found out the school wasn't giving out grades.

Even though my essay was clearly a critique, I tried to be measured in my analysis because I was convinced—utterly—that it would get better. Maybe I should be embarrassed to write that, but I truly believed that after that initial, bumpy start, the school's leadership, and certainly the superintendent, would seek out parent input to better understand the concerns with the online learning format and to create a better, more user-friendly system for kids.

Sheesh. What a schmuck I was!

By July, I was starting to stew. Aside from one very badly designed survey sent out by the district at the end of the quarter, I wasn't seeing any outreach to parents. Where were the emails inviting me to an online chat? Why hadn't I gotten a call from anyone at the school—like my eldest child's caseworker (he has an IEP)? Why wasn't I seeing announcements about parent input or reports from working groups or engagement with the local PTAs? I wasn't the only one getting restless. I started to hear rumblings from other parents—whispered suggestions from parents too nervous to publicly complain that maybe the school really doesn't care what parents have to say after all.

The more I thought about it, I began to wonder why these conversations hadn't happened right after the school closures or at least a few weeks or even a month after the new online format had started. After all, the schools closed in mid-March. It seemed logical that by May, school officials would want to talk to parents about how their children were doing.

But that didn't happen. Instead, parents were continually told to be patient and to "give grace." Many did at first, but after a few months, the suggestion that parents should continue to sit idly by with no information began to grate.

And then, we got the news: Reopening plans wouldn't be revealed until Aug. 12. I knew what was happening.

By keeping parents in the dark about the reopening plans until late in the summer, it was clear that my school district wanted to make leaving the public school difficult. By mid-August, many private schools have filled up, and some of the more popular home school curricula have sold out. And of course, for many parents, making a decision to home school is not a decision made lightly or at the last minute. Further, tutors—that might host educational pods—become harder to find by mid- to late-August, not to mention more expensive the longer you wait to commit to hiring.

And so, for those parents who decided to "wait and see" before making any decisions, that strategy left them with no other choice but to leave their kids in the public schools. Sadly, for these parents, it was very clear that the district had made very few changes to the online format. Yes, the school district was offering more social services to needy families—meals, health-care services, child-care services, and mental-health monitoring for students. Yet the way in which kids learned and interfaced with teachers remained the same. The district would not offer any low-tech options or materials, no streamlining of systems and reductions in software applications, no alternative learning plans for special-needs kids who might not do well in an online format. Kids would still be expected to master the multiple platforms, and they would still need to sit at their computers for hours each day.

Parents are left with the nagging feeling that after six months, it's all starting to look an awful lot like March again, and that in fact, it won't get better.

We're all Bill Murray these days.

— Julie