The global COVID-19 virus pandemic is testing the very fiber of every community it has touched. It’s impossible for me to fully comprehend the scope and gravity of what it represents. To suggest that it will transform the way we conduct our everyday activities, both today and in the foreseeable future, is to severely understate our “new normal.” It’s tragic. It’s consequential. It’s historic. It’s frightening. It’s sobering. As I do my best to practice social distancing in an effort to flatten the inevitable curve of the medical impact, I must abdicate the synthesis of this horrific event to what I consider to be credible and reliable information outlets. I trust them. Right now we need information, we need assurance and we all need to trust something or someone.
In the midst of this unprecedented situation, millions of school-age children are not attending school. It’s not their fault, our ours. But, it is a tragic consequence of our current situation, one that may never be able to repair itself.
For all that I do not comprehend, I see clearly how this global medical emergency has again exposed a long standing reality within public education. We have an equity pandemic.
First, let’s consider each of the words that make up this phrase. Equity is actually a legal term that refers to the assurance of fairness and justice. In the field of education we commonly invoke the term “equity” as providing what is needed for a specific individual or circumstance, regardless of whether it might be considered “equal.” And as we understand a pandemic, it is a malady that is prevalent across continents and cultures.
So, let’s put it together. We are experiencing a condition in public schools that is unjust across a broad swath of American communities. We have an equity pandemic.
I offer two examples:
First, one in every seven school-aged children across our nation experiences food insecurity. In my state, it’s one child out of every five (20%) that experience this reality: not knowing, with certainty, where their next meal is coming from. In “normal” times (whatever that means), this problem has been partially mitigated by our national school nutritional program. I have supported hundreds of kids during my career that were dependent on the predictability of two meals a day at school. Breakfast and lunch. Maybe not the most stellar in nutritional value, but they were guaranteed. Two lousy meals a day are better than none.
Districts, neighborhoods, communities, our collective consciousness, have seen this and have implemented solutions to address this challenge. Free food sites, grab-n-go. Kids, and families, are being fed. Amen.
Second. I know that effective instruction is dependent on the equal influence of three forces: the learner, the teacher, the content. If any of these three variables is compromised, so is the potential of meaningful understanding, learning and academic growth. Schools are closed. Therefore, the triad is broken.
So, we offer solutions. Let’s put a Chromebook in every student’s hands. Let’s promote “online learning.” Let’s pretend that a machine can substitute for the student-teacher relationship. Let’s pretend that what must be learned is available, in meaningful and within relevant experiences, on the web.
Let’s pretend, and fool ourselves into believing, that with an electronic pencil and a virtual teacher, that everything will be okay. Or not.
Zip codes will determine which students can expect reliable access to the internet. Family and economic circumstances will influence which kids can pull a book from the shelf (virtual or real) to address their curiosity. And, practical circumstances will influence whether a child’s experience is rich with exposure to creativity and the arts or a steady diet of “electronic babysitting.”
I am not posting blame. I’m not criticizing.
I’m crying. Our students are not getting the education kids deserve.
So, let’s look forward. When we get past this, when the schoolhouse doors open again, what will we do? What will we offer kids? What will they experience?