If you want to know what school was like in 2020, let me tell you about one moment that has stuck with me for months. One Thursday morning in October, my daughter, an eighth-grader, spent her “homeroom” period performing a school lockdown drill. She was, of course, in her own house, like all her classmates. The students watched a video on their computers about lockdown procedures, then practiced hiding under desks. And so it happened that in this, the most absurd and bewildering academic year of her life, my eighth-grader tucked herself under the table in her bedroom, to prepare for the possibility that someone might try to shoot her, someday later, at her school.
In 2020! Of all years! The year that America finally, if temporarily, solved our school shooting epidemic, albeit due to an actual viral epidemic. (March 2020 was the first March without a school shooting since 2002.) I thought the virtual shooting drill was totally bizarre, and wanted to know why it happened. After all, the only upside to this otherwise disastrous period of remote education is that at least there is a zero percent chance that my kid will be shot in school, a possibility that usually preoccupies me, and her, way more than is healthy. So why wouldn’t schools take the opportunity to just … not … bring it up for a while?
Lockdown drills are, at this point, part of the basic school curriculum; in the 2016-2017 school year, 95 percent of American public schools employed them. And many of those schools continued running those drills in 2020, according to responses to my post in the Slate Parenting Facebook group. I heard from parents in states including Florida, Texas, New York, and New Jersey who witnessed their kids going through lockdown drills while learning from home. “It just baffled me,” said Katie Menschner, a Virginia mother whose three kids also went through remote lockdown drills earlier this year. “How on earth would that be helpful, to do this drill in our house?”
In many states such drills are required by law, and those laws don’t include wiggle room for extraordinary circumstances like a pandemic. That was the case at our school here in Arlington, Virginia: “Although in a virtual setting, we are still obligated to provide safety drills for students,” administrators wrote in an email to parents giving them advance notice of the drill. “We did advocate pretty strongly to them to adjust this requirement,” said Zachary Pope, the emergency manager for my school district. The state did, in fact, eventually waive the requirements—after the first drills of the year were already complete.
You may consider lockdown drills necessary evils in a country with more guns than citizens, one where in 2019 a mass shooting happened, on average, more than once per day. You may despise lockdown drills, given that there’s little evidence that they actually save lives, and that research suggests they’re traumatic enough—in response to such a minuscule real-world risk—that they do more harm than good. (It’s also worth differentiating between lockdown drills, where students discuss best practices and procedures, and active shooter drills, simulations that can feature fake assailants and which the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend.)
But surely we can all come together as parents to agree that the notion of holding any school-shooting safety drill when children are not actually in the school is totally absurd? Parents in the Facebook group certainly thought so. “Because there’s not enough trauma already,” one wrote.
Pope says that his department took the general lack of direction from the state on how to execute lockdown drills during remote school as a chance to rethink, at least somewhat, the drills Arlington students underwent. The goal was “to implement something that met the spirit of the code while being more sensitive,” he said. Harper took the experience in stride. “Yeah, it was weird,” she told me afterward. “But at least it was something different to do.” The video she watched, from the I Love U Guys Foundation—founded by the father of a child who was killed in a school shooting—was clear, age-appropriate, and non-sensationalized. (It is narrated by a girl, now a teenager, who survived the Sandy Hook shooting when she was in fourth grade.) The experience was more traumatic to me in its concept than it was to actual children in its execution, a result I heard from other parents as well, like Menschner, who said, “I changed my tune a little. It felt it was handled well.”
And of course we had the opportunity to opt out officially, thanks to a Virginia law passed just this year. (It’s my own fault; because I only manage to read one out of the roughly ten emails per week sent by my children’s schools, I missed this one until the opportunity had passed.) Indeed, remote school means that more parents than usual have the chance to remove their children from such drills, informally or formally. “We just closed their computers,” said Nicole Parker, the mom of two elementary school students in Essex, Connecticut. “I understand that the state requires them to perform these drills, but I did not invite them into my home.”
When I think back on what the year 2020 was like for my kids, I’ll remember a lot of bizarre events: the school play performed over Zoom, the homework group held around a firepit, my children’s boredom and frustration week after week. But I think I’ll remember this small example of a procedural pile-up of best intentions most of all. Once upon a time—just six months ago—I hoped that schools might use the crisis of the pandemic as an opportunity to discard old habits and innovate. Perhaps they might experiment with holding classes outdoors, emphasizing social and emotional development, or making schedules flexible. None of that happened. We’re all just muddling through, head down, doing the best we can, and it often isn’t good enough. My daughter still got up at 7:00 in the morning, rarely left our house, and never got the opportunity to talk to friends during the school day. Change was never authorized, or it was authorized too late to make a difference. The school, overwhelmed, made a plan and stuck with it, and while individual teachers and administrators did their best to make the plan humane, they couldn’t diverge. And there was Harper, hiding under her desk in her own bedroom, safe from the only threat that 2020 had made imaginary.