Anyone who has watched or read the news in the last two months is aware that in Connecticut, racial and socioeconomic gaps in our state have been magnified by the COVID-19 crisis. As we have attempted to use distance learning in our districts, we learned that many students did not have computers, access points, or sufficient Wifi bandwidth to provide everyone in their houses with the ability to take advantage of this way of teaching.
In more affluent districts, the issues were not so pronounced. Yet every district has students who have lost time and learning throughout the spring. This “homework gap” is most obvious in our inner-cities and must be wrestled to the ground if we are to restart schools in the fall.
Not only are there concerns about not having hardware or software, but the problem of disengaged students is also huge. On Monday, the Hartford Courant quoted a Hartford school spokesman as saying, as of last week, 600 students were not participating in online learning. Other urban districts report similar issues and all have been involved in attempting to reach out to students and their parents. Issues appear to be both with technology (or lack thereof), absence of a structure for learning at home, and/or issues of child care.
Making decisions in all districts on reopening schools is difficult. On top of educational issues, we know that the COVID-19 virus is taking a much higher toll on communities of color, especially those living in poverty or near-poverty.
The health and safety of all our students, staff and others involved in education must be paramount and equity considerations must remain a priority.
I have been searching for answers to this dilemma. I have heard from superintendents, board of education members, teachers and others. While the underlying issues in our society have long been apparent, the coronavirus has placed spotlight on these issues.
What I have learned is that, while helping solve the hardware and software issues, and thank you to Scholastic and The Partnership for Connecticut for providing reading packets and laptops, other issues must also be addressed. Equity issues have always plagued us, but, our current situation provides us with opportunities to do better.
Here are just a few of the issues that must be considered as we examine summer school and school reopening through an equity lens:
- Support for families is desperately needed. It is not only an educational issue: parents need help understanding how software and hardware work, even if the content is difficult for them. We must remember that not all parents speak English, so we must prepare communication plans in the language(s) they speak;
- Summer school will be critical for our students, especially those with special needs or who are just learning English (ELs). We must use it as a way to catch students up who have fallen behind;
- Creativity must run through all of our recommendations, e.g., it will be difficult to find additional classroom space in districts (like Bristol) that has no air conditioning. What about finding additional ways to transport our students safely?;
- We must ensure that there are sufficient social/emotional supports for students with the greatest needs, who are often those from the greatest poverty, have disabilities and are English-language learners. This probably will require more school psychologists and social workers;
- We must listen to our students. Why are some engaged and not others? What do they think about distance learning? How can we help them get more value OUT of school, even at such a difficult time?
- While continuing to concentrate on what is usually considered “core curriculum,” we must not forget the arts and sports and other parts of what excites some students to come to school and stay after they can voluntarily leave. We must find ways to enable our students to continue to have band practice, choral groups, drama and other activities that requires some way to deal with social distancing while allowing the activities;
- We must continue the work of finding more teachers and administrators of color, since they are central to our all of our students seeing people of color in positions of authority;
- We need to find opportunities to work together across school boundaries. Regional thinking about the challenges that every district is facing can be better conquered by working together. The Regional Advisory Teams (RATs) that have been set up, chaired by the executive directors of the six Regional Education Service Centers and include school board members, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and health directors, provide good starting points to do the planning and implementation of this work;
- These RATs are considering “buckets” of issues, such as Safety Concerns and Health Risks; Challenges in Cleaning and Sanitation; Planning for Addressing Academic Gaps and Loss Mitigation; and, Planning for a Rebound of the Virus and Second Wave Closing. It has been suggested that each RAT concentrate on just one or two of the buckets so that they can drill down more deeply. We could then more widely spread best practices and new ideas across the State. One idea: could professional development, critical to enabling teachers to provide high-quality education, be best provided regionally?
- Preschool and childcare issues must be addressed. Many of them are in existential crisis, because of financial concerns and the difficulty in finding staff who will work for low pay. They are crucial to enabling students to start kindergarten ready-to-learn; and,
- Every district must focus on students who are falling behind, have symptoms of trauma or are failing to achieve in school
Yes, many of these recommendations will require more spending by local town and cities and the State. I know that some people believe that because there was no transportation or schools open this spring, districts saved lots of money. School budgets, however, are 80-85 percent based on salaries and benefits of employees. The State, as well as the federal government required districts to pay all of their employees during this period.
With so many of our citizens out of work either temporarily or permanently, it is difficult to call upon them for more money for education. However, such spending, including on equity issues, is what we owe our students. Additional funding for staff, new programs and other needs is a prerequisite to getting schools to where they should be as they reopen.
Equity is a key priority if we are to provide all of our students the help they will need. It is our duty to ensure that all of our students receive the aid they need to be successful.
The spotlight cast by the virus illuminates the need to seek answers to our challenges. We must never stop asking why inequities exist in the first place and how we can eliminate them.
If Connecticut is to fully recover from this crisis, ensuring equity in education must remain a top priority.
Robert Rader is Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education