We Can No Longer Pretend Schools Are Only About Schooling

Published by Robin Jacobowitz on

By Robin Jacobowitz, Gerald Benjamin, and KT Tobin

“Everything connects to everything,” Leonardo Da Vinci is said to have concluded from his life’s work. Nowhere is this lesson more evident than in K12 education this year. In the face of a pandemic, we closed our school buildings to protect the health of students and teachers, and were immediately confronted with the need to feed hungry children and with parents scrambling to find childcare so that they could work.   

Schools were created with a fundamental mission: to educate our youth. This purpose came to be regarded as so important for our democracy and our economy that we made it mandatory, reflecting — at least in concept — a societal commitment to the value of informed citizens and skilled, productive workers. There are very few other mandatory institutions in our nation. The state must provide education; children must attend. We struggle with this charge. Often, the outcomes have been indefensibly inequitable. That does not diminish the value, scope, and power of the commitment. 

Because schools are mandatory, they are useful, convenient, and efficient places to address other social needs: 

  • In 1947, the National School Lunch Program was created to address youth hunger (and also as a way to use surplus farm production). 
  • In 1957, schools in NYS were mandated to provide physical education. 
  • In 2011, the NYSED issued voluntary Social and Emotional Development and Learning guidelines for schools. 
  • In 2014, training in CPR and the use of automated defibrillators became a graduation requirement for students in NYS. 
  • Over decades, various health screenings have become requirements; screenings for vision, scoliosis, and general health must be performed by a school medical professional (if not conducted by the child’s primary care physician).
  • Less as a mandate than by default, and especially as women entered the workforce in greater numbers, schools have filled the social function of childcare. 

A slow and steady evolution required schools to do more, without really raising to broad consciousness our dependence on this expanded charge to provide a great array of emotional, physical, and societal supports (except for school personnel, who are well aware of all the educational and social demands they must meet). Of course we want our children to be socially and mentally healthy; physical health is linked to social and academic progress; learning CPR has clear value; and children have to eat. But we didn’t stop to redesign schools to meet each added need. We adapted them, added on to their responsibilities, incrementally expanding the scope of their charge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid all of this bare. And we are reaping the disaster – yes, the disaster – of it. We closed our school buildings to mitigate the impact of a deadly disease and we were immediately met with other horribles – food insecurity, lack of childcare, increased risk of mental health issues, abuse – as we lost all of the girding that we’ve become accustomed to our public schools providing. And of course the burden falls most heavily on our districts that serve low-income communities, where the need for assistance, such as food and childcare, is greatest.

In New York State, educational institutions were organizationally isolated to protect them from conventional politics, to professionalize them, and to assure their dedication to their charge. But this has also served to alter their function in unacknowledged ways. Politics developed around schools that had to do with ideology, pedagogical approaches, paying fairly (unions and contracts), and funding by use of property taxes. All occurred with little acknowledgement of the aggregated consequences of the broadening reach of vastly shifting functions, social dependency, and the attendant implications, intended and unintended.

Da Vinci had it right; everything does connect to everything. The social, physical, and intellectual health of youth — and their families — are inextricably linked. And this is no more evident than in our schools. We don’t have comprehensive Children’s Agencies in New York. But that’s what our schools have become. We have to acknowledge that repeated incremental adjustment of institutions designed in the nineteenth century for a single — albeit very important — purpose is no longer enough. To properly provide all we must for our children in accord with 21st century expectations and problems we must acknowledge that we have actually created comprehensive Children’s Agencies: our public school system. Now we need to bring the energy and resources of governments, non-profits, and employers into partnership with schools, to address, reimagine, and support the meeting of these social needs together, not on the backs of school districts or for individual households to figure it out on their own.


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