“To put it plainly, those were probably some of the more difficult months that we had as a family, ever,” said mom Elizabeth, with a heavy sigh and a rueful laugh.
“They were stressful. Everybody’s nerves were frayed. We were all on edge.”
Elizabeth and her husband, Ryan, were both able to work from home — she in HR and he in marketing — but the strain of helping to teach their children as well was too much.
Eldest son Liam, now 15, did fine with online learning, but it was a struggle that was obvious to all for Ronan, 8, and Isla, 6.
“They were having tantrums for their teachers, which would never have happened in person, never had happened in person, and really just losing control,” Elizabeth Newhart said.
When it became clear that the coronavirus was not disappearing in the summer heat and that schools would start again with remote learning across much of the country, the Newharts looked at their options.
“We had to do a lot of number-crunching, and a lot of thinking about how we were going to make this work. But we felt like it was something that we had to do,” Elizabeth said.
They cut back on spending and took money from their savings and, three weeks ago, Ronan and Isla were taken out of William Hatch Elementary and enrolled at St. Giles, a nearby Catholic school offering in-person learning.
The Newharts are far from the only children dropping out of public school.
And no one is quite sure how many are going to private school and how many may be getting no education.
“We just don’t know where about 8% of our kids went,” said Dennis Goodwin, superintendent of Murphy Elementary School District in Phoenix.
“We know some went to charters, we know some just moved out of the area — we don’t know if they’ve moved back to Mexico or where they’ve gone. But we can’t find them and we’re not alone with that.”
The largest decreases are in the early grades. And while kindergarten is not mandatory in all states, it is an important steppingstone to academic achievement.
“Our kids are losing time. They’re losing ground,” said Goodwin, whose district is one of the poorest in Arizona. “Education is the number one way to overcome poverty,” he continued. “When you have the situation like we’re in right now, where we don’t have those kids in front of our teachers, in front of the staff supporting them, I think you’re just going to fall further behind. That’s the sad part.”
As well as the educational loss, Goodwin worries for the social and emotional growth of young children. And, as superintendent, he also has to worry about the financial cost. Fewer children enrolled will mean less funding for his schools.
“It just makes things a lot more difficult when you lose students and it hits the bottom line,” he said. “The people who do suffer ultimately is the kids. And one of our frustrations is that seems to be a topic that’s not very much talked about.”
The loss of funding could lead to larger class sizes and other changes, Goodwin says.
He worries that enrollment will not pick back up after the pandemic, but also knows that some returning children will need extra help. “How do you plan for kids that have been out of school half, two thirds of the year, almost all year?” he asked.
Goodwin sympathizes with families who have taken their children out of the public school system because they have to work, or in-person schooling is better for the children.
And parents like Elizabeth Newhart have new insight too.
“You absolutely take school for granted until your children are home and you’re responsible for schooling them yourselves,” she said. “And you’re trying to juggle maybe work or whatever other obligations are going on. It’s really eye-opening.”
She and her husband have been disappointed by what they see as less planning to reopen their district public schools than in surrounding areas and don’t know whether they will send their children back when in-person learning resumes.
“I think there needs to be a bit more understanding from all parties to really keep in mind that the number one priority is the mental and social health of the children,” said Ryan Newhart. “Put some of the other politics to the side to make sure we can get these kids back in schools and learning in the best way possible for each of them.”
An earlier version of this story misidentified the Newharts’ public school. It is William Hatch Elementary.