When School Is Voluntary

More than a century ago, U.S. states put in place laws requiring that children attend school. The guiding principle was that school mattered too much to children’s lives to be a matter of individual choice.

Helping on the family farm or getting a paid job was not a good enough excuse to drop out. Nor was parental convenience or preference. And students could not leave school simply because they wanted to.

Mandatory schooling laws did an enormous amount of good. They increased high school graduation rates and the share of students who attended college, as research by the economists Derek Messacar and Philip Oreopoulos has found. The extra schooling, in turn, lifted future earnings and reduced future unemployment.

But now Covid-19 is undermining the idea of universal schooling.

Officially, of course, the mandatory schooling laws remain in place. Children cannot legally drop out this fall. Yet many school districts have signaled that they will allow parents not to send their children to school in the coming academic year and instead learn remotely. Recent polls suggest that as many as one quarter of parents plan to keep their children home.

The families who choose to do so will span every demographic group, but they are likely to be disproportionately lower-income, Black and Latino. Remote learning was more popular among these groups last year, and a recent survey of parents in Massachusetts suggests the same will be true this fall. “Parents of color have been consistently less enthusiastic about in-person school,” Steve Koczela, whose firm conducted the survey, has said.

‘Little or no progress’

The problem with remote school is that children learn vastly less than they do in person, according to a wide range of data about the past year and a half.

Rand Corporation, a research group, found that students attending remote classes learned less English, math and science than students attending in-person school.

An analysis by Opportunity Insights, a group based at Harvard, found that student achievement lagged with remote learning — and lagged the most for lower-income students.

A study in the Netherlands found that “students made little or no progress while learning from home.”

Individual teachers also say they notice the difference. As Meghan Hatch-Geary, a decorated high school English teacher in Connecticut, told Education Week, her students who struggled the most last year were those who remained fully remote.

Remote schooling, in other words, may be more akin to dropping out than it is to attending in-person school. “Many education experts say in-person instruction is the best way to help hasten an academic recovery for those who fell behind and to address emotional and social consequences after two disrupted school years,” Erin Richards of USA Today has written.

The C.D.C.’s position

In response to the evidence, some school districts will mandate in-person attendance this fall — often with exceptions for the small share of families who are immunocompromised in a way that specifically puts them at greater Covid risk. Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C., as well as much of Florida, Illinois and New Jersey, have taken steps in this direction.

The leaders of these districts have been encouraged by data showing that reopening schools did not lead to frequent Covid outbreaks, even before vaccines were widely available. (The C.D.C. emphasized this point last week, when urging schools to reopen and emphasizing the value of in-person learning.)

As Meisha Porter, the New York City schools chancellor, told the publication Chalkbeat: “We know our schools have been safe and we need our children back … Nothing, absolutely nothing, replaces the interaction and the learning that happens between a student and teacher in our classrooms.”

But most districts will continue to let parents choose between remote and in-person school, according to the national association of school superintendents.

‘Disrespectful’

There are no easy solutions here.

Black and Latino communities have suffered disproportionately from Covid, causing widespread anxiety about risks of sending children back to school. Lower-income communities also tend to have more vaccine skepticism, leaving many adults still vulnerable to the virus, albeit voluntarily so. These concerns have caused anger among parents in some districts that are mandating in-person school.

Tafshier Cosby, a New Jersey resident and an official with the National Parents Union, told Education Week that the decision by Gov. Phil Murphy to require in-person school was “doing parents a disservice” and “disrespectful.”

The situation reminds me of the historical debate over mandatory schooling laws. They sometimes inspired intense opposition from parents who thought that they — and not the government — should decide whether their children stayed home or went to school. Ultimately, though, societies decided that the long-term damage from missing school was too great.

The misery of Covid has frequently forced difficult choices. In the case of in-person school, the evidence seems to fall pretty strongly on one side of the debate. Serious Covid symptoms are extremely rare for children, making Covid less dangerous for them than many everyday behaviors (like riding in a car). Safe, effective vaccines are available for the overwhelming majority of U.S. adults and teenagers. Remote schooling has failed by virtually any measure, and there is no reason to believe it will work better this fall.

But I understand that many parents remain frightened by in-person school. The most likely outcome of continued remote learning, unfortunately, is yet another force that contributes to rising economic inequality in the U.S.

THE LATEST NEWS

The Virus

Israel plans to offer boosters of the Pfizer vaccine to adults with weakened immune systems. Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. had no plans for booster shots.

Less than 10 percent of U.S. hospitals offer ECMO, an intensive treatment for gravely ill Covid patients.

Sports

Italy won the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, beating England in a penalty shootout.

Novak Djokovic won the Wimbledon men’s final, giving him a record-tying 20 Grand Slam titles.

The Milwaukee Bucks beat the Phoenix Suns in Game 3 of the N.B.A. finals.

Other Big Stories

The Haitian authorities arrested a Florida-based doctor in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. (Read more about the mysterious circumstances.)

Cubans protested food and medicine shortages. “I have never ever seen anything like the protests today,” The Times’s Frances Robles, who has covered Cuba since 1994, tweeted.

More power lines or rooftop solar panels? The U.S. is facing critical choices about its energy system.

Alaska Republican leaders endorsed Kelly Tshibaka, a Trumpist challenging the party’s incumbent senator, Lisa Murkowski.

The billionaire Richard Branson flew to the edge of space in a rocket plane.

Opinions

Maureen Dowd interviewed Bernie Sanders, who she writes has gone from “wilderness prophet” to “key member of The Establishment.”

Bret Stephens and Gail Collins discuss “obscure” presidents.

MORNING READS

Virtual worlds: What is the “metaverse”? You may live there some day.

The Media Equation: Ben Smith has five pieces of good news about the media.

Advice from Wirecutter: If you’re going to a theme park, bring a poncho and a phone charger.

Quiz time: The average score on our most recent news quiz is seven out of 11. See if you can do better.

Lives Lived: Henry Parham hoisted balloons designed to destroy low-flying German planes as a member of the only Black combat unit in the D-Day invasion. Parham died last week at 99.

ARTS AND IDEAS

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new act

Over the past year, Andrew Lloyd Webber — creator of hit musicals including “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats” — has pressed the British government to open theaters at full capacity.

He pledged to open his new “Cinderella” musical “come hell or high water,” backing down after he learned his audience and crew could be fined. And he rejected Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s offer to do a trial run of the show without restrictions, because the plan left out other theaters.

He’s also made scientifically spurious claims — saying, for example, that the air inside his theater was “purer than the air outside,” despite clear evidence otherwise.

“The way he’s done it is like something out of his musicals — it’s loud, it’s over the top,” Arifa Akbar, theater critic for The Guardian, told The Times.

In England, theaters have been allowed to open with masked, socially distanced audiences for brief periods. Still, Lloyd Webber has demanded the government provide clarity on when theaters can reopen at full capacity.

He recently got an answer: The British government plans to lift most remaining restrictions in England on July 19. — Sanam Yar, a Morning writer

PLAY, WATCH, EAT

What to Cook

Make summer shrimp scampi with tomatoes and corn.

What to Watch

“The Woman Who Ran” is an elegant exploration of “drunkenness, regret, lust and ennui,” A.O. Scott writes in a review.

What to Read

Katie Kitamura’s new novel, “Intimacies,” follows an interpreter assigned to a former president on trial for war crimes.

Travel Guides

Here are eight great spots to hit in Chicago.

Now Time to Play

The pangram from Friday’s Spelling Bee were immobility and mobility. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Right away (four letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. A century after Alexander Hamilton’s July 12 death, a thousand people gathered near his historical home in Manhattan “to do honor to Aaron Burr’s victim.”

Here’s today’s print front page.

“The Daily” is about a city’s step toward reparations. On the Book Review podcast, Jonathan Balcombe talks about “Super Fly,” and Marjorie Ingall discusses Holocaust literature for children.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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