As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the globe, schools all over the United States have closed their doors. Students now rely on tools like Google Classroom and Zoom to provide some level of instruction and finish out the academic year. Though, for many, Internet access and reliable devices are not available. State governments and individual service providers have aided many communities, but school districts have taken matters into their own hands. With millions of students learning from home for the next several months, all children must have access to quality education and the way they receive it should not be about their zip codes. Educators are stretching themselves thin to offer as many resources as possible, however, those students already getting less in conventional school models are now getting far less with the impacts of COVID-19. While the effects of this pandemic are once again demonstrating the vast inequalities of our society, educators across the nation are doing heroic work to try to meet the needs of children.
For students from low-income families, computers and Wi-Fi are not household luxuries. Moreover, with library and café closures limiting access to the Internet, students rely on third parties to get their digital work done. Some schools have loaned out their own devices to keep students connected. For instance, school districts in Hartford, Connecticut, supplied students with Chromebooks and offered families tips on free Internet services currently available.
In the wake of this digital divide, educators are taking time to assess these unique learning situations. For many households, students’ necessary hardware and software are not intuitive. Educators have helped parents and students troubleshoot technology issues to keep everyone on track. Students in need of wireless access may be able to access it from their school parking lots, as many districts are increasing the radii of their routers. Also, some schools have created Wi-Fi busses, which deliver Internet access to specific spots around towns and cities.
For districts unable to supply students with devices or Wi-Fi, pen and paper have been the only viable option. Rural areas, in particular, lack the broadband power to use tools like Zoom, a video-chatting app that creates virtual classrooms. Instead, teachers create packets of work and have the students complete that. Rural Alaskan teachers hold telephone conferences with students to keep in touch, while districts with close-knit communities hold homework drop-offs. Even if only a handful of students cannot access digital resources, educators have quickly found workarounds to streamline the instructional process.
Now that school cafeterias are empty, over 20 million students are missing free lunches, often the only stable meal within their day. With policies in limbo and grocery stores aisles all but empty, educators have taken to the streets to provide food—from a safe distance. From Baltimore to Lexington, teachers, cafeteria aides, and other educators have set up distribution sites and curbside delivery systems. Lexington’s Bus Bites program delivers the packaged meals straight to students’ houses, offering convenience and comfort.
Suffice to say, we are in a time of considerable uncertainty and fear. Self-isolation and stay-at-home orders can be particularly difficult for adolescents, who can no longer rely on the structure and companionship offered by the eight-hour school day. Educators have recognized this issue and quickly found ways to mitigate any additional anxiety and cabin fever amongst students. Washington Heights’ Castle Bridge School’s students enjoy lunchtime Zoom sessions where video-chatting and eating go hand-in-hand. Houghton Elementary School in Houghton, Michigan, started up a daily staff broadcast via local radio. Inspired by President Roosevelt’s Depression-era “fireside chats,” these 20-minute programs tell stories and answer students’ questions about handling their current situations.
Educators have enabled more than companionship, however. School nurses across the country are holding virtual appointments to offer medical advice to families. This advice ranges from information about COVID-19 to prescription refill reminders. Other academic personnel have provided child care to health workers and found workarounds to support younger students, disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. Through all of this, educators have proven a universal commitment to quality education for all students—no matter what comes their way.
Former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel once said to never let a crisis go to waste. While it is hoped that the COVID-19 crisis will once again remind our society of the important and heroic work of our educators, we must ensure that it is also a call to action to address long-standing societal inequalities that impact our nation’s children daily.