Opinion: As Educators Scramble to “Do School” During a Pandemic, Tremendous Inequities Are Evident
What the shift to remote learning means for students who already had fewer resources and more hurdles to clear
The last few weeks have been insane. As the entire globe has turned almost completely on its head, and everyone has scrambled to make sense of things and adjust to a new normal, I've been incredibly impressed by the responses of some local school districts and their ability to immediately jump into action to meet the needs of their students and communities.
IDEA Public Schools, for instance, set up a social-distancing-compliant childcare center to serve families of first responders, medical personnel, and others who still have to report to work during the pandemic. And Manor ISD officials scrambled to quickly erect a website with resources and lessons to make sure their students didn't experience a lag in learning after spring break, which they released with a video walking students and families through the tools the Sunday before students "returned."
Several districts are using normal bus routes as distribution points to get meals to students whose only stable meals come from school. If nothing else, we have been reminded through this global crisis that schools really are the cornerstones of communities, in more ways than just teaching students math and English.
What has also been abundantly clear is the tremendous inequities in our education system. As the debate went on over whether schools should still be trying to track grades (Texas Education Agency says yes, for now), some school leaders expressed concerns about access to technology for their students. Even with the number of companies offering free access to internet for families or devices from which to access the internet, there have still been hurdles like scarcity and stipulations around the need for a new internet account.
And even with access to technology, there are still many students who are now taking care of younger siblings while their parents are working. Still others are being exposed to more domestic violence and other traumatic experiences, just by virtue of being in unhealthy home environments for more hours of the day. Others are finding themselves struggling to self-direct their learning, alongside parents who were socially promoted through the grades and do not have the basic math and literacy skills needed to assist their children with their online lessons or worksheet packets.
The worst part is, these are the students who are the most likely to have been behind before schools shut down. An education system that is funded by property taxes will always ensure more resources, more staff stability, and more exposure to things outside of the normal classroom to the students whose families could reasonably afford to provide these things themselves and less to the students whose families cannot. It will always perpetuate a stratified society of haves and have-nots that will dictate what the school experience looks like for students, based on their zip codes – and redlining and social conditioning largely keep families clustered in zip codes based on race and socioeconomic class. And many of those zip codes also struggle with environmental issues like tainted water, the presence of lead, being located in a food desert without access to quality nutrition – all factors that impact a student's cognitive development and ability to learn.
There is no precedent for what we are experiencing at the moment, but the most apt comparison is likely the students in New Orleans who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina. A 2017 study found that a child who was in second grade when Katrina hit was more likely than his same-age peers across the country to be out of school and not working at age 17. When students returned to school, most were put in the appropriate grade for their age, rather than ability level.
It is likely that a global pandemic like what we are experiencing through COVID-19 was mostly unavoidable, like a hurricane. What was avoidable, however, were already under-resourced schools in communities that need the most resources, and housing policies that will always dictate which students will be able to bounce back from a crisis like this one, and which students will more likely have their lives negatively impacted forever.
Autumn A. Arnett is an education researcher and storyteller, whose work centers around issues of equity and access in education. She is the author of Let’s Stop Calling It an Achievement Gap, and a former editor of several national education publications. Locally, she serves as co-chair of the Student Advocate Committee for Black Pflugerville, and leads a research team examining childhood criminalization through MEASURE. The Chronicle welcomes submissions of opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Find guidelines and tips at austinchronicle.com/contact/opinion.