Can we talk? Virtually every educator seems to have an opinion on the pandemic’s impact on education. It makes it harder; it makes it easier; it requires too much technology; it boosts creativity over technology. And on it goes. However, what few people are talking about is the glaring spotlight this pandemic has placed on the inequities in education. There’s not much chatter about the vast differences between the haves and the have-nots. So, instead of joining the many who seem to be averting their eyes from the obvious—perhaps hoping it will go away—let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about the way this pandemic underscores the economic divide in education. Some students, for example, have parents at home to assist them in completing assignments. Working from home themselves, these parents have the time and the means to purchase newly necessary supplies or simply to be available as needed. This ability of parents to be present is a decided advantage. Meanwhile other students struggle without assistance as parents work in frontline positions, often leaving older students not only to fend for themselves but also to care for younger ones. Is there any wonder that the latter group may not perform as high academically as the former?
Next, let’s talk about students who not only have a mobile device for each child in the home but have access to high-speed wi-fi as well. Affording these students access to their assignments, to research and to a means of communication with their teachers, this technology is a definite asset not available to students of low economic means. These students have no mobile device with which to keep in touch with their teachers nor to receive assignments. Of course, they have no means of submitting their assignments online, either. And don’t say that they can go to the library, because libraries have been closed during the pandemic.
Now, let’s talk about the emotional toll taken by disrupted routines and lack of social outlets. Some students from wealthier families have taken up residence in their summer homes, in bucolic settings far away from the pandemic’s stress and strife. Others of equal means have remained in homes that contain all the amenities to meet their needs as well as to keep them entertained. The emotional stress is thus limited.
For students of lesser means, on the other hand, this pandemic has meant economic stress as parents lose their jobs, making food scarce and undercutting the surety of having a home. It also means added emotional stress if parents work on the frontlines, in danger of contracting COVID-19. Add to this the lack of home entertainment and the extra responsibilities they may be undertaking in terms of housework and child care, and these students are emotionally stressed to the limit.
Finally, let’s talk about the greatest cost of this pandemic. While COVID-19 does not play favorites when it comes to attacking people’s health, there is a clear disparity in the demographics associated with death. To put it bluntly, people of color are dying, and doing so disproportionately. Setting aside how quick so many have been to point to pre-existing health conditions without noting the societal factors that contribute to them, people of color are more often those of lower socioeconomic levels, hitting some of these students with the double punch of financial loss and loss of family members. Who can possibly focus on school work amid so much pain?
Now that the pandemic has so clearly highlighted several inequities that impact education, our responsibility is to act on them. No longer can anyone pretend not to see them nor can anyone get away with ignoring them. These inequities are too blatant for any of us to feign blindness to them. Whenever classes resume, it’s time for us to address some of them head-on, beginning with the easiest: one-to-one technology and universal wifi access. Many of the others require a change in mindset for educators on all levels.
Adding compassion, but not pity, for students’ plight is a start. Partnering with parents to provide support for students’ individual needs is another step—one that shows respect for the parents’ role as well as empathy for the students. Dismantling systemic racism and classism that keep students from achieving equity is an essential step as well. That takes time to accomplish and can only be done when one acknowledges the existence of the problem along with the need for change.
We need not wait for another pandemic or other catastrophic situation to underscore our need to bridge the racial and class divides that keep inequities entrenched in education. Now is the time to do more than talk. Are you ready?