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How Bad Is It if My Kid Doesn’t Go to School for a Year?

Advice from a PhD in child development, a member of Obama’s Department of Education and Missouri’s former Commissioner of Education

I don’t care what my daughter’s school district says in the next couple of weeks, I am not sending her to school in September. Things have been hard over the past few months with not seeing friends, not seeing family and visiting my mother only through glass. My wife and I have worn our masks and followed the rules, and I’m not throwing all that away just so my kid can be the guinea pig in some grand social experiment. 

Some might say that I’m being an alarmist or being overly cautious, but I don’t see it that way at all. Yes, kids are at less risk for coronavirus, but because of that, the narrative has been obscured to make it seem like they face no risk at all, and you don’t have to look for very long online before finding cases where perfectly healthy kids have gotten sick or even died from this. So, no, I’m not sending her to school.

As a practical matter, that of course comes with complications. My kid was/is about to start kindergarten and my wife and I will have to make adjustments and sacrifices depending upon what our jobs will allow for. I also don’t want her to fall behind, which I recognize might be impossible given the choice we’re making. My wife and I will do our best to keep her on track, but the nagging question I have is, “How bad is it if she just doesn’t go for a year?” 

Obviously, I hope it doesn’t come to this. I hope a vaccine comes soon or maybe I’ll come to feel more assured about the measures her school is taking, but I still want to know just how detrimental that could be, so I turned to some people much smarter and more qualified than myself to answer this question.

What Happens If You Miss a Year of School?

John White, former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama: For those students that just graduated [high school] this past year, the danger is that they might be tempted to take a gap year. For people with means, a gap year can be the cultural and educational experience of a lifetime, but for poor kids, a gap year probably means they’re never going back to college. Statistically, for low-income students who take a gap year, most do not return to college either because they’ve gone on with their lives or they’ve tried to get employment to support themselves and their families. They also may not have the means or the guidance to navigate that path. By not going to college at all, it then puts them at a great disadvantage in the labor market. 

As for the pre-K to grade 12 level, there is always a concern about any gaps in learning becoming wider, and we know that many children are coming into this school year behind because of gaps from last school year. What people are especially struggling with is, “How do you do remote learning?” for the early grades. Many high school students have experience already taking an online course, or they have enough of a foundation where they can keep up with their work and be more independent. For elementary kids however — especially from kindergarten to grade three — they’re just learning the foundations of literacy and they need that small group instruction. They can also learn from their peers. To be totally detached is difficult for the students and the teachers.

Certainly, health and safety come first. A lot of parents are struggling with the question of, “Can I be a homeschool parent?” Now, if you have means and your house is full of books and you have the patience and you can make sure your children learn to read and learn the basics of math, then you’re better prepared. For most of America though, there is a need for a teacher, and it’s difficult for parents to do it on their own. Especially for those families that don’t have internet access, which is true of many American families. If you have to make phone calls to get paper packets, your kids are at a great disadvantage compared to kids who may have high-speed internet.

The reason why this is particularly concerning for younger children is that the learning gap will start immediately, and it will get larger until we can get them back to school and some semblance of normalcy. And they’ll not only have to stay on grade level, but get caught up with what they missed as well.

Chris Nicastro, former Commissioner of Education for the state of Missouri, former teacher and former school superintendent: Right now, everyone is weighing the risks of the virus versus the necessity of kids being in school and that’s a huge dilemma. For youngsters — particularly between ages three to eight — those are considered the most important years because that’s when you form the basis of all learning that comes after that. It’s when they learn language, how to read, it’s when they begin computation and mathematical skills. That’s also when they become socialized and how to interact with peers and how to survive in a civilized society. Those are such landmark, fundamental years. So, for little ones, this is particularly difficult.

It’s also important to note that high minority and high poverty school districts — many of which are particularly hard hit by the virus — are the least likely to have support for any kind of learning at home. For me, as an educator who has served mostly underserved populations, my heart breaks for them because those kids aren’t going to go home to a literature-rich environment. So those complications are multiplied millions of times by those circumstances. I hate to boil this all down to socio-economics, but the reality is that this is an awful lot of what drives these decisions.

If I were making a call right now, I’d do everything possible to get three- through eight-year-olds in school, at least part-time. That might mean one day a week or two days a week and, to me, if that can be done safely, that’s what should happen. As kids get older, they’re more able to support their own learning virtually — that doesn’t mean they will, but they have the ability to do that more independently. 

This is a personal decision though, and if parents choose not to send their children to school, I’d recommend they first reach out to the school district, as most districts are providing resources for parents and putting up curriculum online. So, find out what is available to you and, to the extent that you can, set up a reasonable schedule for your children for educational activities. Now, I’ll caution parents that they won’t be able to keep their children engaged in educational materials for six hours a day, but I’d say you could do this for at least a couple of hours a day.

There is also a concern for children with special needs, as many of them didn’t get the services they needed at the end of last year and things like physical therapy and occupational therapy are exceptionally challenging to be done virtually. Last year, everyone was caught by surprise, but over the summer, hopefully districts have prepared for how to provide services virtually. The reality is, though, those services aren’t going to be the same as they would be under normal circumstances.

Finally, I’d have a frank conversation with your child’s teacher, as teachers understand what’s going on, and really good teachers are trying their best to accommodate kids and families to the extent that they can.  

Theresa Russo, PhD in human development and family studies: People have homeschooled forever, and that’s fine. I’m about parents having the choice for what they want to do. School is more than just academics and, by not being in that environment, kids will miss out on that experience, but is that going to be detrimental for one year? Probably not, as your child won’t be the only one doing it and there are a lot of resources to help with that now. However, that’s only if you have certain resources. For many children, there are going to be concerns of safety, nutrition, health and wellbeing. 

For some kids, it will feel like a traumatic experience to actually go to school. If parents are seriously freaked out, their kids will feel that and they’ll be freaked out too, so sending them to school under that kind of condition isn’t going to have a lot of developmental benefits either. Happy parents make happy kids and stressed parents make stressed kids, so it’s all about weighing what parents feel is best and safest for them.

For older kids, they might push back more because they already know what the experience of school is like. If they like going to school and view it as a freedom, then they may be angry if a parent decides not to send them, so that’s a different kind of dialogue if you decide not to send them. 

Overall though, it’s important to remember that kids are resilient. With some structure, I’m sure they’ll be fine if parents work with schools to be sure their children don’t get behind. It’s not what anybody wants, but there are many ways to provide structure and a learning experience. It will be a struggle for many parents, and they certainly will have to be creative and be as patient as they can be. But I hate for it to be all doom-and-gloom. I’d hate for parents to feel like they did this detrimental thing to their kids, especially for a safety issue. Honestly, for the parents who are even thinking that way — that they might do some harm to their child — those parents will likely be concerned enough as parents that they’ll do what they need to to keep their kids on track.