School in the Era of COVID-19

It’s undeniable that COVID-19 has had far reaching impacts. From the loss of thousands of jobs to the simple inability to go out for a cup of coffee, the virus has changed the very way we are used to living. The condition of life in not only the United States, but the world changes from day to day, and the question is constantly raised of what next? What else can change? What else will we lose?

One of the greatest losses for millions of people in the country is school. Previously a fundamental part of people’s lives, school has been forced to drastically change shape, regardless of if its a daycare or a university. The response of schools have varied from district to district and state to state. Without a clear message from our president about what schooling during Covid should look like, states and cities have largely been left to their own devices. 

A majority of schools have transitioned to some form of online learning. The largest school district in the country, New York City, has moved to online learning for the rest of the school year, following in the footsteps of many other schools in the country. However, given the sheer size of the NYC school district, the struggles with online learning have become increasingly apparent. Home to nearly 200,000 students with disabilities and 114,000 students experiencing homelessness, NYC has had to tailor their program to meet the demands of students with a diverse range of experiences. To attempt to meet these needs, New York purchased 300,000

electronic devices to distribute to students in homeless centers or otherwise without access. Students have the option to request devices on the front page of the NYC Department of Education website, but Chancellor Richard Carranza also explained that the district was utilizing teachers to help determine who needed access to devices. “The people that know their students the best are their teachers,” Carranza explained in a NPR interview, “so the teachers are absolutely on call to make sure that they know where their students are. They can check in with them on a daily basis.”

However, even with the distribution of laptops and ipads, many students simply do not have access to wifi to attend their online classes. Conducted over google classroom and with resources distributed via schools websites, wifi is essential for students who want to engage in online learning. Of the nearly 450 shelters in NYC, only a handful have wifi access despite the district’s commitment to providing hotspots for all students. And even if wifi does succeed, many students still have limited access to computers to tablets. In a door to door poll conducted by Estrella Montanez, the director of the Nelson Avenue Family Residence in the Bronx, Montanez and her staff found that only 15 of the 79 families living in the residence had access to a computer or laptop. The shelter houses 177 students.

This division of access between lower-income students and their more privileged counterparts has been a massive concern for parents, educators, and political leaders alike. The fear that it will increase the already existing divide was the justification behind Seattle Public School’s initial decision to suspend learning for the rest of the year. Superintendent Denise Juneau tweeted on March 15 that SPS would not transition to online learning. “2 things” Juneau explained “not all students have access to internet and technology AND educators can’t just switch to online teaching overnight — it’s a specialized approach.” This decision, made with equity concerns in mind, sparked uproar from the student, parent, and teacher population. Many teachers continued to teach virtually despite the decision, and many parents lodged complaints that they feared their students would fall behind students in other districts. Additionally, some activists worried that this decision would only serve to deepen the educational divide. For students who come from more privileged backgrounds, accessing resources to continue online learning is far easier.

In response to these concerns, SPS decided on March 30th to transition to partial online learning. Teachers will provide materials (both virtual and non-virtual) for students to use to continue their education. Beginning on April 6,, the school district also began distributing laptops and tablets to students in need, attempting to increase access to the material provided by teachers. The Seattle School Board also decided on April 22nd that all students would end the semester with an “A” or an incomplete, either boosting or having no impact on their GPA. This policy differs from those of many surrounding school districts who have decided to change grades to Pass/Fail, garnering more criticism for SPS. “…Giving everyone a 4.0 isn’t “do no harm,”’ Daniel Wesneat from the Seattle Times reported, “it’s handing out candy. It gooses Seattle GPAs for no reason, at least compared with peers in other school districts — most of which are adopting pass/no-credit arrangements. It renders all Seattle GPAs effectively meaningless going ahead.” 

The Covid-19 crises “definitely shows in starker relief some of the most glaring inequalities in our education system,” said Stephen Tremaine, the Vice President of the Bard High School and Early Colleges program (BHSEC). But Tremaine, who leads a network of schools that provide college-level coursework to public high schools, hopes that this crisis can help to amend these inequalities in the long run. Tremaine noted that normally, we would be able to ignore these inequalities because they occur slowly and invisibly, but Covid is forcing us to come to terms with them in a large way. 

He also stated, on a currently optimistic note, that he felt that “Student engagement, student attendance, a student desire to be in a space of critical learning and thinking together are at an all time high.” Students in the BHSEC network are more engaged than ever, and are constantly looking for ways to connect with the material, their professors, and their peers. Tremaine feels that BHSEC has a “responsibility to… humanize this experience” of online learning, and that “if you’re having morning coffee with your professors talking about Nietzsche, that humanizes that experience.” For Tremaine, the engagement of his students is proof that BHSEC is humanizing the experience of virtual education. He felt that in the case of the current situation, the liberal arts education that BHSEC provides is especially important. “It’s not enough to look at [this moment] like a biologist, economist, sociologists,” Tremaine explained, “You have to be able to draw on all of those kinds of thinking and all of those discourses to wrap your head around a problem so complex that it’s undermined our whole society. And that’s what a liberal education does.”

With regards to the response of different districts, Tremaine said that “Anybody who says they know what should be happening right now is wrong,” and was hesitant to criticize the responses of any school districts to this crisis. Tremaine explained that he was “certainly sympathetic to the argument that it would be better to call this summer break” and also was aware that “a lot of people are finding success in remote learning right now.” 

And Tremaine’s feelings are being echoed by many people throughout the country. There is no one size fits all approach to this crisis, instead, this is a learning moment for all of us. It is revealing to us not only the problems that exist in our education system, but the importance of our education system in society. The hope, as Tremaine alluded to, is that we can use this pandemic to take steps forward in our education system, and make it a more inclusive and equitable place for all.

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