With schools in 47 states and the District of Columbia closing indefinitely, educators, students and communities are grappling with the uncertainties of the new COVID-19 reality. And as school districts look for new ways to teach the nearly 57 million students who are away from their classrooms, the coronavirus health crisis is exposing and deepening inequities that continue to plague public education.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic forced massive school closings, many school districts struggled to provide an equitable education for all learners—especially those with special healthcare needs and those with physical or intellectual disabilities, students for whom English is a second language, and children in poor and disadvantaged communities. Chronic underfunding for more than a decade has robbed public schools of the resources and critical personnel supports necessary to meet the needs of the most vulnerable student populations.
A number of school districts are developing distance-learning plans using email and the internet, but few of them are prepared to offer equitable learning opportunities for some of the most vulnerable students. The coronavirus outbreak has left many school districts scrambling to figure out how to provide remote learning to millions of children—special education students, English language learners (ELLs) and immigrant students, and children in homes without broadband and computer access.
Distance learning poses challenges
An AFT member survey found that special education staff worry that their students will experience substantial skills loss, because the specialized care, instruction and therapy provided in schools can’t be replicated easily at home. The AFT surveyed SPED staff—including special educators, paraprofessionals and specialized instructional support personnel—to determine the impacts of coronavirus-related school interruptions on vulnerable student populations. Respondents also raised concerns about the lack of socialization, consistency and routine.
“We know students need consistency to learn and thrive, especially students with special needs,” says Caroline Marney, a 16-year veteran special education teacher in the Houston Independent School District. “Without that consistency, I’m convinced kids will lose ground, and we will likely see regression that will need to be addressed once this crisis has ended.”
Like other SPED staff, Marney has reservations about the effectiveness of teaching special education students remotely on computers and devices. With guidance and support from the union—the Houston Federation of Teachers—and the local school district, Marney and her colleagues have begun focusing on outreach to help train parents on supporting their kids at home while schools are closed.
Supporting parents during this time is a good idea, but not a full solution to issues created by a long-term interruption to education services, according to Katherine Miller, a special education support service provider in New York City public schools.
“Our school has established a phone-tree to help students and families, but we know there are a lot of children—especially from lower-income families—whose parents can’t work from home,” Miller says. “Those parents often are forced to leave children at home alone or with siblings or lose income.”
And children from lower-income families are more likely to be disadvantaged by the lack of access to technology, known as the digital divide—a term used to describe the gap between people who have sufficient knowledge of and access to technology and those who don’t.
That gap can exist even in school districts like New York City, where the department of education is working with Apple to supply 300,000 internet-enabled iPads to support remote learning for students.
“Some of my students who receive special services have parents who aren’t accustomed to using technology and really aren’t able to help their children complete assignments on devices,” Miller says. “I’m afraid that the achievement gap that existed before this crisis will continue to grow.”
And in northern New York in the Adirondack region, a few miles from the Canadian border, Michele Bushey is a high school biology teacher in the town of Saranac where the lack of internet and Wi-Fi access is a serious problem that she says creates significant inequities in the delivery of education services—even under normal circumstances.
“This region has a lot beautiful mountains that make for amazing landscapes, but it certainly makes it more difficult to get needed internet service,” Bushey says. “I have a number of students who don’t have Wi-Fi or internet, and that means I’m reaching out to them by phone daily to try to provide alternate instruction for them.”
Students without internet are largely relying on take-home packets that Bushey and her colleagues prepared for students before schools closed. But, she says, “the closures were so abrupt that we only had a very short time to prepare.”
Even some teachers in the region don’t have internet access, Bushey says: “I know of teachers who are driving to parking lots that have Wi-Fi, and they sit in their cars and work. And there are kids whose parents also drive them to parking lots to do their homework.”
To try to make sure all her students are getting what they need, Bushey spends most of the day—from about 6 a.m. to midnight—engaging with students online, for those who do have internet, and on the phone with all students, regardless of connectivity, to answer any questions they have about lessons. Bushey also is homeschooling her daughter, Julia, a second-grader.
“The lack of internet access and the inequities it creates is a very serious issue, so serious that I’ve called my assemblyman, Billy Jones, and people in the governor’s office,” says Bushey, president of the Saranac Teachers Association and a political action coordinator for the New York State United Teachers. “We’re going to need a plan for when this is over to provide additional help for students so that they don’t regress.”
Capitalizing on the fact that most households have televisions, even if they don’t have internet access, some school districts are working with local television stations and public broadcasting stations to provide remote learning. One AFT affiliate, the Washington Teachers’ Union, is partnering with local TV station Fox 5 and its sister station Fox 5 Plus WDCA to air lessons on television. The program—“Learning Doesn’t Stop: Lessons on TV”—will be presented by District of Columbia Public Schools teachers in the 30-minute lessons that are aligned with district learning standards for specific grade levels.
“We’re doing this because at least 30 to 40 percent of our city’s students do not have access to a computer. They shouldn’t be left out of distance learning because of their economic circumstance,” says WTU President Elizabeth Davis.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest district in the nation, is partnering with PBS SoCal and KCET to provide lessons for preK-12 students.
Meanwhile, as school districts continue to shift instruction to online platforms while schools are closed, students without broadband and/or computer access may fall behind. A nationwide survey found that more than 1,600 superintendents from 48 states said they plan to use online courses and platforms while schools are closed during the coronavirus outbreak. For students who don’t have internet access, 73 percent of the superintendents said their plans involved supplying books and paper assignments. About 40 percent said they would provide hotspots or Wi-Fi devices. The AFT and our partners in the Education and Libraries Networks Coalition urged Congress to include direct funding to help school districts cope with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, Congress failed to provide that funding to help facilitate remote and distance learning through hotspots, connection devices and mobile wireless service.
But there are glimmers of hope. “I think this crisis has brought communities together to provide services to vulnerable populations,” says Julie Sellers, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. “Some schools are providing hotspots that students can use at home, and local businesses are donating broadband access to some of our high-poverty neighborhoods so that children don’t fall too far behind.”
Remote and distance learning also create challenges for children who speak English as a second language.
“Students who are learning a new language need support, regular review, and oral and written practice to maintain the language they are acquiring,” says Nelver Brooks, an ELL high school teacher in the St. Louis public schools. “Also, think about how frightening it must be not to have the language to fully understand the scope of this crisis.
“Many of the students I teach already have faced a myriad of trauma in their young lives, and this is yet another traumatic experience. I don’t believe any of us fully understand the many repercussions this crisis will have on our students.”
Greater investments needed
The coronavirus pandemic and school closings are underscoring the urgency for greater investments in public education and services, especially for marginalized members of our communities, says Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates.
“Many of us who have worked in this space advocating for better funding for our communities and public education over the years have warned about the consequences of austerity policies,” says Davis Gates, also the Illinois Federation of Teachers executive vice president. Years of disinvestment in public education have left school districts unprepared to deal with the crisis created by the COVID-19 outbreak, she says.
Davis Gates suggests that the post-COVID-19 response must include significant investment and a series of comprehensive programs to provide relief and generate recovery for schools and communities—in much the same way that the New Deal helped the nation respond and recover after the Great Depression.
As we move forward, the AFT will fight to ensure that public schools and colleges once again are centers of democracy, learning and social services when we have weathered this crisis together.
“As we adjust to our new normal, we must also plan for a day when we will return to our classrooms, our offices and our lives, in an economy very different from the one we previously knew,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “We cannot once again suffer a decade of neglecting our public schools and services, balancing state budgets on the backs of educators and other working people.”
“That makes the recovery efforts’ investments all the more crucial,” she adds, “as we consider the long fight ahead to mitigate the damage this crisis will have on the things we’ve fought for—nurses and counselors in every public school, trauma resources, lunch programs and other wraparound services—all of which will do wonders to support families in the weeks and months to come.”