Public school is a bad deal for us

Actually, that really understates the problem – we feel that living in the USA is a bad deal for families in general, but for now I’ll focus specifically on public school and daycare.

My wife and I were taking a stroll around the neighborhood with our three kids during the week when I realized – there’s no one else out here. As in, there are no other families enjoying the (at the time) fall weather. Occasionally you would see a caretaker pushing a stroller, or a pair of adults power walking, but we were basically the only nuclear family out on the sidewalks. And we were almost always the only nuclear family we saw on weekdays.

My mind took me to the fact that the fault lines of our society are all determined by fealty to corporate interests. After all, the biggest reason for putting kids in daycare, especially at such young ages, is to be able to work.

Anyway, that triggered this diatribe on the downsides of sending our kids out to daycare or public school. The caveat is that both my wife and I have the privilege to be able to work remotely, support ourselves, and also raise our kids – even if it’s somewhat hectic at times.

⚠️ To reiterate: this essay is especially true for us because we can work remote with reasonable work-life balances – to the point where we feel like we would prefer to keep the kids home for now. This is not everyone’s situation, but the downsides I list below for families living in America are, in my opinion, downsides for all.

So let’s go one by one through reasons why people send their kids to school – “school” meaning daycare on up, starting with the hygiene hypothesis, or how people have interpreted the hygiene hypothesis, anyway. Basically, the idea that sending your kids into the line of fire builds up their immunity against pathogens.

Immunity

When the pandemic hit, we withdrew our eldest from the school system and began what eventually turned into an ad hoc system for homeschooling.

Now that President Biden has declared covid “over,” but more to the point that all of our kids are vaccinated against it and we’re busy with work, we have been considering when and how to get the kids back into the public sphere. That means daycare and school.

Immediately the next thing that happened was a wave of RSV, flu, and covid. If you’re not a parent or you’re not familiar with RSV, it’s called Respiratory Synctial Virus, and in my circles it’s put more kids into the ER than covid has. Here’s an apocalyptic article on the trio of diseases: US Children’s Hospitals Are Overwhelmed by RSV – The New York Times (note: I would treat “immune debt” as a more questionable idea than the article presents it, which I cover below).

Like clockwork, parents in our circles had to call off work to take care of their kids. It’s a miserable experience – oftentimes you have to take care of your children while you yourself require care-taking due to being sick with the same thing. And it’s almost inevitable if you send young kids to school. Even older kids will share food with each other and swap masks, if they even bother to wear masks.

So how do you protect your kids and yourself if you send your kids into public school? You don’t. You just accept that you’ll get sick. That’s how it was for us before the pandemic. We would be miserable every other week. Isolating from society during the pandemic was hard, but not being sick twice a month was a revelation – one we don’t want to give up.

What about “building up the kids’ immunity” you ask? Well, we know that herd immunity doesn’t really work for covid, reinfection after vaccination or illness is fairly common, and reinfections boost chances of death and organ failure. And while these articles are all about covid, it’s not too far a leap to guess that other viral diseases might have similar profiles. For instance, RSV immunity lasts about 2 months. Measles actually robs the people it infects of immunity from other viruses.

So – they hygiene hypothesis is one thing. Dirt, bacteria, wind, rain, and sunshine are all fair game for priming a young immune system. But viruses can do some really deep damage – like cause cancer. If you could really exercise your immune system like you could a muscle everyone would start out licking public school drinking fountains and some would eventually graduate to licking BSL 4 door knobs. My point being that there is a limit to the progressive overload that the immune system can take.

Viruses are also often attenuated, or made weaker, by overly virulent strains of virus killing their hosts and therefore becoming evolutionary dead ends, whereas weaker strains continue to let their hosts spread the infection. We don’t have that natural attenuation in the United States because our health care system is really good at two things: keeping you in debt, and keeping you alive. So there is a really high theoretical threshold to a virus keeping itself in check via virulence because the ER will pump you full of steroids, prescribe a raft of antibiotics (just in case), and then mail you exorbitant medical bills for the privilege over the course of the next few years.

And we are breeding these particularly potent viruses in daycares and public schools.

Socialization

Another factor that people, and even doctors, bring up is that of socialization. As in, if you don’t send your kids to school, they will grow up to be some sort of Neanderthalic reject, unable to cope with the modernity of the world.

Our kids are mostly too young to be able to tell, but I have my doubts. When we sent our eldest into daycare, she socialized, but it was, ah, how do you say this sensitively…it’s downright abusive.

Our daughter, Avery, is an endlessly cheery girl, to the point where it’s detrimental to her own health. Her “best friend” at the time, of which she had many, was a girl named Rylee (sp?) who would show her affection by boxing Avery’s ears or pinching her upper lip so hard it would draw blood. And that’s just what we heard about. When we asked the daycare staff about it, they were very apologetic and issued an incident report and did essentially nothing to prevent it from happening again, which it did.

There are never enough teachers, because again the point of a daycare is to make a profit, not to optimize your kids’ well-being, and when they are there, they are powerless to prevent anything. I wouldn’t be surprised if the parents of a bully are more likely to be bullies themselves, so an educator puts their careers on the line by disciplining bullies, unless the entire administration is willing to go to bat for the teacher. Much cheaper to just find an excuse for the bully’s behavior.

And if your kid isn’t one of the bullies to begin with, they might learn to be one. Avery came home from daycare at some point and started kicking her grandfather because “the boys did it.”

Our daughter isn’t our only point of reference, either. Cici and I both grew up in the US school system. We are familiar with the abuses one can receive from classmates and teachers. And many of our friends’ children have had run-ins with bullies, racists, and racist bullies. Maybe if you’re white with Aryan features, public school is a breeze for you. But for many people, and especially people of color, “socialization” means getting used to being abused.

Our school system leads to an arms race in bullying, a Lord of the Flies environment where the bullies rule, the bullied grow resentful until they finally strike back. With the easy availability of weapons, it’s no wonder that the United States is ground zero for school shootings, worldwide.

Education

I’ve treaded and retreaded this so many times that it’s a given to me, but I do not believe that children learn better in school, at least early on. Both in personal experience with our eldest and the fact that schools start too early, disrupting sleeping schedules, or that we wouldn’t be able to teach our children Chinese, or teach them about the racism that we’ve faced in various institutions – school included.

📚 Our personal experience with having our eldest study math or Chinese is that, given the right incentives, she can focus for longer periods of time on difficult subjects than she likely would be asked to in school. While we started her out with fun apps for learning math (like DragonBox and later Prodigy games), we’ve since moved on to more focused study using IXL, and she’s done really well. Similarly for Chinese, we started her out on the iHuman 洪恩识字 app and then graduated her to reading short fiction and writing messages to her grandparents.

Let’s also consider the effect that the school system has on kids’ outlooks on learning. I think the biggest problem with keeping the kids busy in school is the busy-ness. They have a lot of things to do and not enough time to let their minds wander or get bored and do things just because. It’s modeled after work.

We consider boredom to be an essential part of learning. This ties into our policy on technology, as well, but essentially outside of a few focused hours of work time, Avery is free to do whatever she wants – except screen time. As a result, she is often bored, and as a result of that, she:

  • Plays with her siblings
  • Crafts using cardboard and knick-knacks around the house
  • Does origami
  • Plays the piano
  • Reads every new fiction book she can get to
  • Reads extensively about flowers and succulents

We don’t have to push her to do anything artistic or literary. She just wants to. And, importantly, she has the time to do it.

School busy work is often tedious, uninspiring, and time consuming. Boredom is merely tedious until you find the next thing to get in trouble with.

To be fair, a lot of the downsides are mediated by the kids’ relationships with their parents. School doesn’t have to be a tedious, boring slog, but it does end up taking freedom away from the kids, by design (otherwise they’d be interrupting your standups and 1:1’s).

Just plain bad

Forgot to mention a few key elements that play into our decision to keep the kids at home that are just plain bad instead of replies to common reasons to send the kids to school:

School shootings and active shooter drills

Despite the fact that it is statistically unlikely for your child to be actually shot in a school shooting, the fact that it’s likely enough for active shooter drills to be taught in school is terrifying. The drills themselves should be considered traumatizing and the fact that we allow this to happen at all is a damning condemnation of where we are at as a country. And if an active shooter situation ever does happen, it’s not just the shooting victims who are traumatized, it’s the entire school. So we view school shootings as likely to affect us and growing more likely with every year, compared to when my wife and I were in school.

Even if the drills themselves weren’t traumatizing, the things we’ve heard of the active shooter drills themselves would be hilarious if it weren’t so serious. For example, our friend’s kid was given the advice to “zig zag to avoid fire” as if it was a big game of Counter-Strike. That is a great way to incite uncontrollable chaos in a class of kindergartners. “Hide behind your classmates’ bodies and play dead” can be practical, yet horrifying.

These things shouldn’t happen. Ever. Having to think about school shootings alone makes the US a horrible place to raise a family.

Meal habits

On a less acutely deadly note, children simply don’t eat well at school, and it is unacceptable to us. My nephew, who is in high school, is given 20 minutes to eat lunch and barely eats more an apple. Younger children don’t eat, and when they do they do their damnedest to infect each other with the latest and greatest viruses.

At home, we make sure the kids are well fed, even if it takes cajoling, bribing, and presenting different options at the right times. If our eldest is any indicator we will eventually have a bunch of great eaters, but right now it is a game of escalating bribery. It would pain us to no end to send the kids to school with a full lunch box and then have to throw most of it out when they come back. It’s bad for their health and it’s food waste.


In the end, school is a really tough deal for us right now. We’re still struggling with our eventual reentry into the world and what’s best for our kids, because while this environment is ideal for them in some ways, it’s not a typical one, and we don’t want that to end up stunting their ability to adapt to the world we live in.

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