“Let the Parents Decide” is NOT a Substitute for Policy
It’s deja vu all over again. Schools are reopening. And we are all back to debating about masks.
Once again, we are back to the policy punting, and again, teachers are left carrying the ball.
In teacher parlance, “punting” is when you kick a question back to students, especially if we don’t know the answer. For example, by asking, “But what do YOU think of that?” “Punting” can also mean giving the class something to discuss or do that will take up some time — much like when a football team punts to run out the clock. For example, by telling students to do a “turn and talk” while an administrator wants to talk to us in the hall. (Of course, there are many good reasons to ask that question and to do turn and talks, so they are often used as more than a punt).
Punting has become the tool of choice for politicians or administrators who want to dodge hot-button educational issues. Instead of doing their jobs and addressing the issue by leading and by making policies, they pass the buck. The federal government “decides” to let the states decide. Then the states “decide” to let the school districts decide. Often, districts “decide” to let individual schools decide. And sometimes the administrators of those schools even punt by “deciding’ that the teachers can decide. Then, as usual, the teachers are left (often without support) to make and enforce their own policies, which leaves them to deal with non-compliant students and angry parents on their own.
Punting has increasingly been used as a substitute for educational policy. Diane Ravitch outlined how the Clinton Administration’s effort to create a set of national history standards became so contentious (thanks to attacks from conservatives) that the federal government dropped the issue, which punted to states, which punted to districts, which punted to schools, which punted to teachers. Now 25 years later, history teachers are left to individually negotiate whether they want to be attacked for not teaching about our racial history accurately, or being attacked by the Fox News-watching crowds for ostensibly teaching “critical race theory” if they teach history accurately. Similarly, schools in the 90’s had an opportunity to make policies about cellphone use. But again they punted, and (conveniently for administrators) “decided” that individual teachers should decide. The result has been daily battles about cellphone use with students and parents that is driving some teachers out of the profession. The same often goes for basic norms like attending class, coming on time to class, bringing the required materials, etc. Often, it is easier for districts and administrators to leave it to teachers to fight those battles than to have to do that work themselves. This enforcement burden becomes another significant time cost for teachers and also creates a great deal of additional job stress.
School and district administrators also love to make unrealistic policies and then punt the enforcement to teachers. As schools get overwhelmed, fewer have time for more minor “compliance” issues, so they leave that job to the teachers. How many of us have had our administrators ask why we’re making such a big deal about kids chewing gum in the hallways or wearing shorts that were too short AFTER they had told us they expected us to enforce their rules about gum in the hallways or dress codes about the length of girls’ shorts?
The most recent — and dangerous — example of punting has been the punting of mask and vaccination requirements for children over twelve. It started in 2020 with the Trump Administration, which resorted to denial right when our country needed action. Responding to a global threat of a transmissible disease requires collective action, which requires direction from the top. Instead schools and teachers got punted the ball. The Trump-directed federal government decided to let the states decide. States whose governors weren’t actively working AGAINST safe school openings still didn’t want to touch an issue that far-right propaganda had made needlessly contentious. So they punted to the districts. That left local school board members to face angry mobs of parents who had already been brainwashed to believe that masks were not only unnecessary, but were violations of their children’s freedom and an actual health risk. Instead of having the integrity to go to a closed session and then make the decision that would protect students’, teachers’, and staff members’ health and lives, the school board members often punted. They declared that they would leave it to parents to decide whether to send their children in person or have them attend online. Or whether or not their children should have to wear masks or take COVID tests or follow schools’ hygiene procedures. Once again, this left teachers to try to enforce these unwieldy rules, often with violently unwilling parents and students — while simultaneously trying to teach online using ad hoc online teaching platforms with a glitchy internet.
This year, with Biden in office, some of us had hoped for more direction and for a more authoritative response, particularly as the Delta variant began ravaging through our country right as our public schools were getting ready to open for the fall. When that was not forthcoming, those of us in states with Democratic governors petitioned them to prioritize everyone’s safety over the demands of a vocal but brainwashed minority. Instead, many of us have watched as they lined up for the kickoff and left us to catch and run the ball.
Many school boards and administrators are sidestepping the contentious school board meetings that are rocking so many small towns across the nation by throwing up their hands and saying, “let the parents decide what’s best for their children.”
Choice works well in some situations. Americans love their choices. We equate choices with happiness — even when more choices don’t make us happier. We equate choices with freedom, even when they can create overwhelm and paralysis. This is why we have whole grocery aisles full of over a hundred choices of breakfast cereal. This is why “school choice” has been a rallying cry of the religious right and neo-liberal educational reformers, even when the real goal was to re-segregate schools and privatize public education.
But the issue of choice becomes more complicated when we ask who benefits from the choices and who pays the costs. Choices frequently benefit families with more privilege and capital and frequently hurt families who have less. Similarly, particularly with choices around masking, they benefit the strong and protect the weak: children with compromised immune systems get hurt while families who are willing to enroll their children in a Darwin Award competition get to continue to make reckless and irresponsible choices.
Most frequently, the cost of choices and of “letting the families decide” falls to teachers. This was most pronounced last year, when teachers were left to juggle hybrid instruction because the school districts wanted to placate demanding parents. Teachers were left to do twice the work without any additional support or pay because “choice” often means that no one has to commit any funding. Why provide funding when a district or school could (at least hypothetically) have chosen differently? Teachers pay the costs in multiple other ways. They have to create and enforce their own mask rules — often with little support from overwhelmed administrators and amid threats from increasingly violent and radicalized parents. Teachers have to do the work of checking students’ masks, enforcing social distancing rules, and sterilizing classrooms — often while paying for their own supplies. Teachers often are left to manage compliance issues on their own, and even to argue with parents who don’t feel their children should have to follow the teachers’ rules; it is much more difficult to argue that a “choice” is potentially a matter of life and death. Punting to teachers leaves them to get blamed for anything that anyone is unhappy about. And it leaves the teachers to manage the stress while their districts send emails suggesting yoga poses.
The federal government, state governments, districts, and sometimes even schools are trying to sidestep making mandates (which right-wing propaganda has gotten its followers to view as a direct attack on their freedom and a cause for threatening civil war) by replacing rules with “recommendations.” But teachers all know what happens when we “recommend” something: the most conscientious people follow the recommendation while the people who could benefit the most ignore the recommendation entirely. When districts or businesses “recommend” masks, the people who have gotten vaccinated wear them while the unvaccinated decide that they “don’t agree with” vaccines OR with masks and then place everyone else at increased risk. In such cases, a recommendation can be worse than nothing at all. Or, recommendations should really be reserved for options that are a matter of preference, but not for something that is actually necessary for the benefit of everyone.
We can’t recommend our way out of a pandemic. Protecting the health of students and staff is not a “choose your own adventure” proposition. It is also not something teachers can add to their plates because all of their higher ups were too afraid of the fallout from doing something unpopular and decided the easiest option — for them — would be to punt.