I’m doing my duty as a California parent. I’m flunking distance learning.

Because failure isn’t just an option when you must become your children’s teacher during the worst pandemic in a century. Failure is the goal.

Imagine the educational carnage if distance learning didn’t fail! If parents proved better instructors than teachers, how could unions defend their weaker members? If I administer my home classroom effectively, how could school districts justify employing expensive administrators? If students did better at my kitchen table than in a physical classroom, why would school construction firms ever donate to school board campaigns again? 

Educational success, in these circumstances, would be nothing less than an attack on public education, which I revere. So parents of  school-age children must accept their roles as actors in a show that, like Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” is supposed to flop. Even Gov. Gavin Newsom, who imposed distance learning in March, has dropped any pretense that this is anything more than educational theater. As my local school superintendent recently wrote to our San Gabriel Valley community: “California’s public-school system does not have the infrastructure or appropriate regulations to support a comprehensive, all-in, distance learning program for all students.”

This doesn’t mean parents should abandon distance learning Our job is to accept the blame for distance learning’s failure, so that our schools, teachers and kids don’t have to.

I confess: I was slow to embrace my own role as scapegoat. I never got less than a A until college. So I took it hard when distance learning began and I immediately seemed to be  failing three grades—my sons are in first, third, and fifth. Only  Adam Sandler’s character Billy Madison, who flunked grades 1-12, has done worse. 

At first, I made excuses, like that my full-time job distracted me. Then I lashed out. 

I blamed my wife for offering no help; her lame excuse is she’s a health journalist covering COVID19 around the clock.  I blamed the confounding educational technologies—Sumdog, BrainPOP, Think Central, Flipgrid, and, worst of all, Google Classroom—my kids had to use.

I blamed teachers, who sent me assignments with broken Internet links—and mixed messages. One day, they’d advise not to stress about completing schoolwork. The next, they’d ask why particular assignments weren’t done, or remind me that school swas still in session.

Most of all, I blamed my lazy, undisciplined students. They exploited the fact that they needed to be on their screens all day to sneak video games whenever I wasn’t looking. With them sleeping in, skipping work, and bombing tests, I threatened to call their parents, before remembering I am one.

I finally understood distance learning’s true purpose after reporting my first grader’s work refusals to the school. In a call, teachers and administrators politely declined my request that he be made to repeat first grade. My 6-year-old, recognizing my diminished power, started making me write down his answers to school assignments. Last week, he warned: “If I get an email from Google Classroom that I need to do this again, you will be to blame.” 

So I have accepted my fate. I am not anyone’s teacher. Nor do I have any training in instruction or classroom control.  I can’t give students a grade. I can’t even ground them—the whole world is already grounded. I am merely an unpaid go-between between two groups—my children and their teachers—who during a pandemic have bigger worries than schoolwork.

I am sometimes asked, Does distance learning work? The answer is we will never know, if we employ it only in these crazy circumstances, when it is certain to fail. 

Right now, I’m just relieved that distance learning has allowed the state to justify continuing to pay teachers and school employees during this crisis. If that means I have to play Potemkin, and pretend the distance learning village is real, I’m happy to serve.

Unfortunately, on social media and grocery store lines, many of my fellow parents refuse to suffer in such productive silence. Their rage is understandable, but it’s bad form. We California parents must save our energy for the many fights ahead. 

We’ll need to challenge the governor and legislature when they use COVID to justify huge cuts to our schools. We must demand that the state finally keep its promises to invest in children—especially on childcare and mental health. And when it’s safe to reopen schools, we must insist that lost instructional time from this spring be made up, that remedial work gets done, and that no student falls behind.  

Most of all, we require that our students honor their parents’ distance-learning failures by studying harder and learning more in the years to come.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.