When the pandemic struck hard at Wisconsin my first question to a friend, who is a public school teacher in Madison, was how youngsters who relied on lunches and food from our schools would be impacted. I was heartened to see numerous news articles and reports in the press about how those students are not falling through the cracks, and are still receiving meals.
Weeks later I am now focused on another issue that surrounds the closure of schools due to COVID-19. While we all grasp the necessity of limiting the spread of the virus, on the one hand, I am also pleased to know that around the world there is a growing recognition that such closures stymie the learning and development of all kids.
As The Economist noted today.
The rich world has no modern precedent but a 2017 paper by Keith Meyers, of the University of Southern Denmark, and Melissa Thomasson, of Miami University, on a polio epidemic in 1916 in America, made the lesson clear: closing schools hurts kids’ prospects. The younger ones leave school with lower achievements than previous cohorts and the older ones are more likely to drop out altogether.
My husband was a college professor for many years in this city. He has noted the challenges which instructors will face when the next school term starts without students having become proficient with this year’s classwork. In addition, comes the reality that the economic disparity is playing havoc with remote teaching across our nation.
The digital divide is real. In many districts, the rush to build a remote learning plan began the old-fashioned way, with paper packets — enough to tide kids over while school leaders take stock. Namely, can they provide hardware and Wi-Fi access to every student who needs it?
The answer for many school leaders has been a dispiriting no.
“I would easily say that less than 50% of our students and families have access to either a consistent learning device and/or Internet access,” says Nikolai Vitti, the head of Detroit Public Schools Community District. “I think that’s our greatest challenge right now.”
Even before the outbreak, chronic absenteeism was a problem in many schools, especially those with a lot of low-income students. Many obstacles can prevent children who live in poverty from making it to class: a parent’s broken-down car or a teenager’s need to babysit siblings, for example. But online learning presents new obstacles, particularly with uneven levels of technology and adult supervision.
Cratering attendance in some districts contrasts with reports from several selective or affluent schools where close to 100 percent of students are participating in online learning. The dramatic split promises to further deepen the typical academic achievement gaps between poor, middle-class and wealthy students.
This blog, in one way or another, continually stresses education. Too often posts on CP need to underscore what happens when a lack of education is demonstrated. I have blasted those who demean education, the teaching profession and paying the bill to make sure we instruct our future generations. Now we need to up that verbal game, given the awareness of stunning shortcomings which have been exposed as a result of this pandemic.
We have learned just how unprepared we are to meet the educational challenges. When it comes to our school-age kids the deep economic inequalities are glaring. We see which school districts have funds for the infrastructure so to allow for the devices and bandwidth. We see where parents have the luxury to be at home and direct at-home education of their kids.
And we also see where the tax base is not anywhere sufficient to afford the needed means for a sizable segment of our youth to get the education they also should expect during a crisis.
We need to find ways to reopen our schools come the fall so the learning and socialization of youngsters can again be a part of their daily lives. We simply do not have the capability to educate students via long-distance learning in an equitable manner. And it is not fair to those on the lower economic rungs of society’s ladder to be further deprived of their education.