Pandemic brings out inequity in public education like nothing we have ever seen

My oldest grandson is starting first grade in a few weeks in Montgomery County. He and his parents are terribly disappointed that he will not be returning in person to the school he fell in love with during the first part of his Kindergarten year. Like numerous others across the country, my daughter and her husband are struggling to balance work, remote learning, and care for a younger child.

When this is all over I have complete confidence that Oliver will be fine. But what I don’t know is what will happen to those without the means to provide financial security to their family. Covid-19 will be remembered for many things but the most significant I believe is the disparity in education it is highlighting between the haves and havenots.

In the spring the focus was on disadvantages for the poor when it comes to distance learning. Scores of homes lack adequate internet access and computer hardware. Add to this an overnight shift to online classes and the concomitant introduction of uneven instruction and you have a disaster for children that were already 60 academic achievement gap points behind their more affluent peers.

Now with school buildings still closed for the new term adults with means are figuring out alternative methods for educating their offspring. Some are enrolling their children in private schools, many with tuition of over twenty thousand dollars a year. Others are creating pods with other neighbors in which teachers are hired to work with a small number of pupils, while some are using adults to monitor time spent in front of laptops. Both scenarios carry heavy price tags. Yesterday, the Boston Globe featured one family who decided to take their daughter out of the local public school.

“Patricia Callan, who teaches writing at Salem State University, has pulled her 7-year-old daughter out of Beverly Public Schools to form a full-time home-schooling pod with three other families. She loves public schools, but as someone with hypertension and asthma that place her at higher risk of complications from the virus, she worried about her daughter bringing the virus home. The pod will provide her daughter with badly needed socialization and in-person learning, she said. During the spring, online schoolwork kept her daughter occupied for only an hour and half per day at most, Callan said.”

Today, the editors of the Washington Post decry the current situation.

“Everyone — parents, principals, teachers, government officials and the students themselves — desperately wants a return to the classroom. As Mr. Gregorich told The Post’s Eli Saslow in a wrenching account of the dilemma facing the Hayden Winkelman Unified School District, ‘These kids are hurting right now.’ Remote learning, which many schools turned to when they were forced to close in March, is a poor substitute for in-person instruction. Children need the social supports, interactions and friendships that come with attendance. ‘I get phone calls from families dealing with poverty issues, depression, loneliness, boredom,’ said Mr. Gregorich. ‘Some of these kids are out in the wilderness right now, and school is the best place for them.'”

Times such as these call for extraordinary action. So what are we in the nation’s capital to do? One approach is for nonprofits to assist in creating learning pods for at-risk youth. The Boston Globe described one founded by the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network, formed through a $235,000 donation from the Shlomo Fund. The DC Education Equity Fund, whose purpose is to bridge the digital divide for low income students, can expand its mission to provide support for learning at home.

We should all reach into our pockets to see how we can support those in our community who are hurting right now. With schools closed until at least November and likely beyond, we cannot turn our backs on those in our community who desperately need our help.

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