Like many teachers, I’m sitting in my apartment, staring out the window, wondering what the heck I’m going to do now.
I’m supposed to teach Romeo and Juliet. My plans need complete readjustment. There’s a lot to figure out.
Yet, I know I’m incredibly lucky. Each student in my class has a school-issued laptop, we tested remote meeting capability before spring break, and most of my students have access to high-speed internet. We’re sad to miss socializing with each other and important events, but the pandemic will mostly be a frustrating inconvenience in the educational lives of my students.
I think back to schools and communities I worked in that were not flush with resources. I think about teachers in communities where schools are essential to provide not just education, but meals and other resources kids may not be able to get at home. There are many communities where not all families have access to resources, internet or technology necessary to try and make “stay-at-home” more than an honest attempt to survive unprecedented circumstances, much less try and make it “educational.”
This is, perhaps, the terrible gift of the COVID-19 outbreak: we are being shown exactly how inequitable our education system — and everything else that affects the students in our classrooms — is.
Many of the shifts needed to pivot to digital education require resources society has withheld from disenfranchised communities for generations. It’s easy to forget that America still has communities where lower-income families lack equal access to electricity (or, for that matter, clean, running water to wash their hands safely). There are private internet companies offering free internet, but that requires time to wait for service to set it up. Some argue that most students have smartphones, but that requires data that may be shared with others. Plus, the shift from writing or creating something on a phone versus a laptop is something even the tech-savvy will tell you is frustrating. Even if students do get access to free internet at home, it still remains to be seen what will happen to those students after the pandemic calms down. Will they be allowed to keep a service we now realize is essential? Why is it always those in disenfranchised communities have to work so much harder to participate?
Others believe that this can be an important time to allow student to relax and create while teachers and parents should worry less about whether students complete their assignments. This is a great mindset to have in these times, but it’s also important to remember that these recommendations are also affected by privilege. Students in more affluent communities are more likely to have space to safely go outdoors. We also must remember that many of our students, if not in school, will have to either take care of siblings all day or may be worried about meals that they normally relied on schools to provide during the week. While it may be beneficial to give students space, the idea that they will be able to “relax” ignores the very real circumstances created by generations of inequity not just in education, but in housing, childcare, and access to food. Schools have been able to act as a band-aid for some of those issues, but when ripped away we see the gaping wound that an unjust system has left on communities.
There are things we can do as we attempt to move through a global pandemic in an unjust world.
Be kind to our students. This seems like a given, but it may be tempting to keep “control” and “routine” by imposing rules. on the digital education we are attempting to give. Stability can be helpful, but they shouldn’t be done without validating the fact that this isn’t a normal situation and making changes in light of that. Our students weren’t made to sit silently at a screen for hours on end. If they must be stuck there, letting them eat, drink, dress comfortably and interact with each other is better than a false sense of stability.
Don’t fall into a deficit mindset. While it’s important to recognize the inequalities in our education system that our students face, we shouldn’t use that as license to assume our students or their communities — no matter how disenfranchised — have nothing to offer. “Learning” and “education” are terms that desperately need to be broadened. What interpersonal skills do students get from caring for siblings? Can they use this time to learn from someone in their household? What ingenious ways are their families handling this situation? By encouraging students to see and acknowledge the strengths on display in their communities, we can all benefit and begin breaking down hurtful mindsets we may have for our students.
Also, we can be kind to ourselves. This situation is unparalleled in its effects on our personal and professional lives, and no teaching program could have adequately prepared us for this. It’s okay to spend time grieving not just for time lost with our students, but for our own losses too, even if they feel small compared to others (I spent a whole day crying because my wedding will likely be postponed. I feel you.). Know that we will likely mess up or forget things as we try and give our students something over the next few months, but it’s okay — we’re all figuring this out together.
Finally, though, we must remember what this outbreak revealed when things go back to normal. We can’t simply wash our hands of this experience and let the system fall back into place. When this is done, we must demand practices that close these resource gaps so we can use schools to uplift everyone, instead of the band-aid that tries to mend the broken body of our education system. We must learn from this experience, so we enter next year ready to use our classrooms and platforms as ways to begin breaking these systemic inequities down.