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Pandemic Reveals Limits of Education System to Assist Students and Families

COVID-19 is forcing administrators to address the roles schools play in communities.

A child looks out the back of a vehicle after receiving meals from the Los Angeles Unified School District "grab-and-go" center at Van Nuys High School on March 18, 2020.

Part of the Series

The COVID-19 pandemic is unfolding fast, with each day’s missives giving us new, and sometimes contradictory, information about the virus. Schools — public and private, pre-K through university — have been scrambling to figure out how best to respond since the virus hit the U.S. Currently, schools in most states are closed, but dates for reopening vary. Some are slated to open their doors in mid-April, while others have already announced that they will not reopen until fall.

As school personnel and state education authorities try to figure out what to do, they are getting little guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). Although the DOE website provides data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as a letter from DOE’s Office for Civil Rights that acknowledges the need to counter “racial and ethnic stereotypes,” there is little actual guidance about whether a particular school should close, and for how long. Likewise, the website provides no specific recommendations for how best to challenge bigotry, including the racism that has increasingly plagued Asian Americans in the wake of the pandemic.

For that, some schools — and caretakers — are turning to local and national leaders who have expertise in combating prejudice and bullying.

Marieke van Woerkom, a teacher and writer at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility in New York City, a 38-year-old organization that brings nonviolent conflict-resolution strategies into the city’s public schools, notes that there are many concrete exercises to get kids of all ages to both think about, and empathize with, people who have been assaulted or berated because of their ethnicity. Her recommendations include examining “old racist tropes that portray Asians, their food, and their customs as unsafe and unwelcome,” and includes video clips of people who have been victimized.

Still, the question for many schools is more basic: Will states allow them to remain open or will they be forced to close, and for how long?

In most states, public schools have followed the lead of universities and colleges, shutting their doors and utilizing distance-learning platforms for online learning. Nonetheless, a small number of districts continue to take a more measured approach, staying open and issuing frequent messages to parents and guardians. Most stress basic hygiene, reminding them and their kids to wash their hands frequently with soap and water, stay home if sick, and cover their noses and mouths when sneezing or coughing. They describe enhanced cleaning measures, noting an uptick in wiping down frequently touched surfaces like keyboards, tables, desktops, door knobs, and toys and books that may be routinely passed around.

Prevalence is also stressed, since in many parts of the country, the number of infected people continues to be minimal. They further urge anyone who has traveled to China, Iran, Italy, South Korea or Venezuela to enter voluntary home quarantine for 14 days after returning home.

Dealing With Anxiety and Fear

But that’s where the similarities end. Some regions have stressed the need to remain calm and attend to heightened student anxiety. In Dover, New Hampshire, for example, caretakers received an email in early March reminding them to be as available as possible to answer kids’ questions and address concerns and fears. “Tell kids you love them. Do not blame anyone or stereotype any one group of people as responsible,” the note advised. They also suggested limiting TV viewing and time spent online to keep tensions at bay.

These strategies, says New Jersey psychotherapist Shelley Orren-King, are essential. At the same time, Orren-King recognizes that while teachers and caretakers are often told to provide kids with age-appropriate information, what this means is not always clear, especially since the ability to assimilate rapidly changing information varies from child to child. “When we are bombarded with information on the news, reason often goes out the window,” she says. “We all need the right kind of information, but keeping kids under age 5 away from the TV news makes sense. Some kids are naturally anxious and will have a lot of questions, or may come home and say, ‘We’re all going to die.’ I think adults should be proactive but stress that, yes, people are getting sick, but you’re doing everything you can to keep yourself and them safe and healthy.”

Before closing the New York City schools, Chancellor Richard A. Carranza attempted to reassure caretakers by reporting that CDC-approved cleaning products had been provided to every public school in the five boroughs and assured them that bathrooms were continually stocked with soap and paper towels. While schools were still open, the city also pledged to hire an additional 85 school nurses — so that every school would have one — but offered no specifics on whether these new employees would be full- or part-time, or if they’ll be on board when schools reopen.

In Washington State, the Northshore School District, located 21 miles north of Seattle, was one of the first in the country to close after several presumptively positive cases of coronavirus were reported. All planned evening events scheduled to take place on school property were canceled, and a thorough cleaning of every school in town was promised. But this left nearly 24,000 students essentially unmoored for a minimum of 14 days.

Juliet Scarpa, a resident of nearby Shoreline, Washington, has two sons who attend Shoreline public schools. “The schools are following state and county health department recommendations,” she told Truthout. “They’ve canceled community events including the Festival of Cultures where my son was supposed to play the marimbas. He’s in third grade and finds this irritating. I try to explain that this is about people he knows and loves not getting sick, but it feels like an adult problem that is impacting him.”

Scarpa also reports that the city’s indoor community pool has closed, as has the recreation center. While she understands the necessity of the closures, she fears that “kids will be left to blow to the winds” if they are left without a safe place to go. Furthermore, she notes that closing schools raises equity issues. “Plenty of families here depend on free or reduced-price meals for their children,” she said.

Mass Child Hunger Predicted

“Crises like this rip the Band-Aid off the festering wounds that are American hunger and poverty and make them more visible,” Joel Berg, CEO of the nonprofit Hunger Free America, told Truthout. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture will give closed schools permission to distribute meals outside school doors, but we still have no idea if students will get one meal, a week’s worth, or even how, exactly, the food will be distributed. When schools close, there are ways to mitigate the short-term damage, but the fact remains that there will be mass child hunger as a result of school closures.”

All told, Hunger Free America estimates that 30 million U.S. kids a day rely on no- or low-cost school meals.

Berg also reports another major change that will impact low-income people, many of them parents of school-aged kids. And it’s a glimmer of good news.

Proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps, that were set to take effect on April 1, have been canceled — at least for now.

But there’s also some bad news: Berg reports that a proposal to increase SNAP benefits by 15 percent failed to garner congressional traction in the $2 trillion stimulus package. “The White House originally agreed to the SNAP hike, but later reneged on the deal,” he wrote in an email. “Desperate to pass the relief measure quickly and not get blamed for its defeat, Democratic leaders dropped the SNAP provision without even insisting on a vote or as much as a public debate on it.”

“When humans are hungry, they have compromised immune systems and are more susceptible to catching and spreading COVID-19 and other diseases,” Berg cautions. Worse, he notes that this crisis shows the limit of what schools can do, “and highlights the deficits of not having universal child care, universal health care and paid medical leave for every worker. It’s the confluence of an economic and natural disaster.”

Let’s zero in on sick leave. The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that the Family and Medical Leave Act has been amended to provide paid leave for 14 days to all workers whose worksites have fewer than 500 workers. If more time off is needed, workers will get paid for up to 12 additional weeks at two-thirds of their usual monthly pay. This provision extends until December 31.

This represents a marked departure from the situation that existed until mid-March when a confusing patchwork existed, with most states providing only the 12 weeks of unpaid time off authorized by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

For example, before the pandemic, just 12 states and Washington, D.C., had even minimal protections for their workforce — Arizona, California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington State. The amounts paid out were different in each state and accrual depended on the number of hours worked and duration of employment.

Deficits Highlighted

“A moment like this puts into acute clarity the structural deficits in how we care for ourselves and for each other,” said Cassie Schwerner, executive director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. “Most of us can’t afford to stay home from work if we’re ill, and if we have a sick kid, we send that kid to school. The coronavirus makes the situation facing vulnerable people and vulnerable communities more dire.” Schwerner calls these “structural inadequacies.”

“In New York City, there are approximately 114,000 homeless children enrolled in public schools. When schools are closed, where do they spend their days?” she asks. “If we thought about schools as communities, we’d understand the importance of having adequate material resources and provide them.”

Then there are budgetary issues — the near constant cutbacks to public education over the past three decades — and the rampant growth of privatized services within public education. Well before the closure of Chicago’s public schools, Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) reported that much of the schools’ cleaning had been privatized.

“We will continue to work hard to make sure cleaning is done every day when schools reopen, and that there is sufficient soap in the restrooms, but we know that we’ll need to bird-dog the administration to make sure that this happens,” Montgomery told Truthout. “We know that we can’t expect anything from [DOE], so the American Federation of Teachers and other unions are pushing the DOE hard for clear national guidelines on how workers can fight the virus.”

Montgomery said that well before the COVID-19 crisis, the union was aware of serious hygiene issues, including soap shortages in school restrooms. “Some schools have five stalls, four sinks and one air dryer. We always need paper towels,” he said. Once school doors open, he said that the IFT will ask locals to monitor supplies and cleaning. “These are things we can bargain over,” Montgomery added.

Teachers like Joanne Tolles agree, but felt it unwise to wait for negotiations. Instead, she had purchased school supplies herself, out of pocket. Tolles teaches at the now-closed Alternative Center for Excellence in Danbury, Connecticut, and said that she bought hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, tissues and wipes when it became clear that her school was not going to provide them. “I couldn’t wait,” she said. “I felt it was my duty to do something to keep everyone safe.”

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