Editor’s note: This commentary is being produced as a part of Elevate 2021, an effort by The Journal to bring new voices into the pages of the magazine to discuss important civic issues and expand the range of viewpoints available to readers.
Scrolling through Facebook one day after COVID had become a household term, I came across a picture of several desks arranged neatly in a picturesque area out of doors. The picture had been used to draw attention to a post wherein a parent was requesting suggestions on what to buy for the “school pod” the family was forming at their home for their child and several of her fellow kindergarteners.
The families would pool money to hire a teacher, hopefully someone with experience, who was looking for an alternative to teaching in-person. Or they would take on a co-op model and rotate overseeing the virtual learning themselves.
This was summer, and families were beginning to realize that schools were either not going to open in the fall, or they didn’t want their children attending in-person classes even if they were open. Periodically, I would see a post mentioning equity or equality. People asked how they could support families that didn’t have the same resources and therefore lacked the same ability to plan and prepare.
The families that didn’t have such options were the ones I thought about most, because these are the families I work with every day. I’ve been in education 20 years, working in under-resourced communities and seeing firsthand the disparities that exist in education. (Those disparities are not exclusive to public schools. I’ve worked in parochial schools too, and the stories are the same.)
These families must leave their children with friends, family or babysitters who are not able to oversee virtual learning. They have difficulty getting information from schools. They lack internet access or have limited space at home for learning. Some were already worried about meeting basic needs such as having sufficient food before the pandemic hit. And then there are the families and children that schools have lost touch with completely.
Many of the schools these children attend also lack resources. They can’t provide sufficient working digital devices or expensive online programming. These schools are often located in communities that have higher coronavirus infection rates, which prompt restrictions that limit in-person activity. Schools and families that can least afford it are asked to do the same or even more with less.
Despite efforts over the years to achieve equity, education continues to be about the haves and the have-nots. The result is that many students have had very different learning experiences since moving to remote learning. For some children, it’s hardly been a learning experience at all.
This is a problem requiring adaptive work. Any attempt to create a more balanced experience for children will require much more than deploying Chromebooks or iPads. It will also require a collective purpose. More people need to care and be willing to work toward a solution. This should include families of all types, students, educators, community partners and anyone else who can bring innovative ideas to the discussion.
But first, we should explore multiple interpretations and points of view. This is vital because most families, regardless of their resources, simply want what is best for their children. When a parent does something different, it’s often all too easy to judge or criticize. But looking at different interpretations and points of view helps one understand the context in which decisions are made. Are parents unthinkingly leaving older children in charge of younger siblings or do they fear losing jobs if they don’t? Is a child care center not concerned with school-age children or just not sure how to keep everyone safe if they enroll more children? Is the family with resources oblivious to the plight of others or not sure who or how to help?
To address this problem, we’ll also have to raise the heat. Leaving entire groups of children and families behind will have long-term, negative effects for all. Many of us have sustained significant losses during the pandemic. But it is impossible to square the idea that large groups of children could potentially miss most of an academic year because of situations beyond their control.
Creating more equitable educational opportunities involves acting experimentally. There is no silver bullet for this situation. In the last 10 months, various methods have been attempted. In Mexico, they are using TV programming to reach children, including those who have access to TV but not the internet. In the United States, learning hubs have popped up, but many are being run by for-profit organizations, attracting those with means. Those being run by nonprofits have limited space or can’t be accessed by families in need without additional support or financial assistance.
There is room for innovation. All children deserve quality learning experiences, regardless of ZIP code or family income. Bringing together stakeholders, the obvious and the not-so-obvious ones, can begin the work of helping to ensure this happens.
Inequalities will not cease to exist when the virus is finally under control. In fact, they will stand out even more when it becomes obvious who has had educational opportunities and who has not.
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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