Schools Are Struggling to Avoid Worsening Inequity When They Reopen

When Denmark became the first of 22 European countries to reopen schools on April 15, students were told that wearing face masks was optional. But not everything went back to the way it had been before COVID-19.

Recess for Danish children now requires social distancing, and elementary school-aged students have been divided into groups of five to limit interactions. Games include “shadow tag” instead of actual touching and ball games are prohibited. Students stay in one room for the entire day; pre-packaged lunches are eaten at desks; and there are hand-sanitizing stations at every door. Water fountains have been turned off, but students and staff can replenish their water bottles at designated filling sites. Lastly, bus service to and from school has been suspended: Students now need to walk, bicycle or be driven to class.

In the Australian state of New South Wales, the set-up is different. There, classes meet in person once a week; the four remaining school days involve remote instruction. Schools, however, have latitude: Some schedule different grades on different days while others have divided students alphabetically, grouping them to limit attendance to 15 students at once. Arrival and departure times are staggered and cafeterias are closed. Cleaning of high-touch surfaces has ramped up, but like Denmark, face masks are not required.

Conversely, newly returned students in Taiwan must cover their faces and sit at least five feet from one another when indoors.

And then there’s the U.S. How, or if, schools will reopen this fall is currently a front-burner issue and the debate involves not only the health and safety of students, teachers and staff, but also veers into how best to meet the needs of students living in communities that have been devastated by the pandemic, the majority of whom attend schools that have been under-resourced for decades. On top of this, educators, parents and activists note that some students have fallen behind and are now on shaky academic ground. What’s more, an anticipated spike in child abuse and domestic violence during quarantine will need to be addressed.

President Trump, meanwhile, has threatened to cut off funding to any school that does not reopen fully, announcing his intention to put the kibosh on plans to offer hybrid or online-only instruction.

For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued vague recommendations urging facilities planning to reopen to encourage frequent handwashing with soap and water; install no-touch hand sanitizer dispensers; repeatedly clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including playground equipment, drinking fountains, and door and sink handles; ventilate rooms whenever possible; avoid sharing electronic devices, toys, books, games and learning aids; alternate seats on school buses to ensure social distancing; put up sneeze guards and partitions when spacing is impossible; use disposable utensils at mealtime; and restrict visitors and volunteers from coming in-and-out of school buildings. The CDC also recommends canceling all field trips.

On the stickier issue of whether schools should fully reopen, remain online, or offer a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, the CDC is silent, deferring to local boards of education.

Students May Have Taken Jobs

In rural American Falls, Idaho, Family Development/Engagement Specialist and Foster Care and Homeless Liaison Angie Harker told Truthout that a dominant concern is reengaging with students who began working full-time after schools closed. “The reason they went to work in the first place is economic need, poverty, and their income is often critical to their families,” she says. Most work in agriculture, tending potatoes, sugar beets and other crops. “Before COVID-19, these kids — many of them immigrants from Central and South America or residents of the Shoshone-Bannock reservation — might have attended school full-time and worked in the fields part-time. Now that’s reversed and they’re trying to fit school in after work, on weekends or during their lunch breaks. Agricultural jobs pay a decent wage — $13 to $20 an hour — and since kids as young as 14 can legally work in Idaho, keeping them in school is going to be a challenge.”

But Harker’s concerns extend beyond employment. Kids who have been indoors for months may have become fearful of going outside and worry about contracting the virus if they return to school. Trained counselors, she says, will be essential in making sure that student mental health needs are addressed.

State Coordinator for Homeless Education in the Montana Office of Public Instruction Heather Denny highlights an issue that her state is grappling with: “The coronavirus feels like something that’s happening somewhere else,” she says. “It doesn’t feel real to most of us since we’ve had so few cases.” At the same time, Montana’s public schools have been closed since March and reopening remains tenuous. “So much depends on things we don’t yet know,” she says. “We’re planning to make sure kids wash their hands more and have custodians clean everything more thoroughly.”

Since Montana has such a small population, she continues, it has been relatively easy to stay in touch with students and their families, but in some cases, people have moved, gone to live with family members, or returned to one of the state’s seven tribal reservations.

“We’re regularly reaching out to see what people need,” Denny says. “Sometimes this means shipping a computer to a new place of residence, or mailing packets of assignments out to them.” Nonetheless, Denny acknowledges that some students have vanished. “I’d say we’ve had contact with 75 or 80 percent of our students. They’re not always up to date with their schoolwork, but we’ve made contact with them when we’ve delivered meals, grocery cards or phone minutes. What we’ll do with kids who have not kept up with assignments when they return to school is being discussed.”

Students’ social and emotional needs are also a concern. “We have to assess the impact of the school closure on each kid,” Denny says. Other big concerns, she adds, include domestic violence, child abuse and child neglect. “There is a certain amount of protection that comes from seeing kids every day,” she tells Truthout. “In many cases, we haven’t laid eyes on these kids in months, so if abuse has happened, we haven’t known about it and have not intervened.”

Denny also anticipates an increased homeless population once the state’s moratorium on evictions ends late July — something that is likely to repeat in at least 30 states throughout the U.S. as eviction moratoriums expire. “It is likely to be messy when school starts back up, and we need to be prepared to assist students and their families while keeping them on track academically.”

Urban Schools Face Different Issues

When it comes to reopening schools, there are some overlapping concerns facing urban and rural educators, but the magnitude of the pandemic has hit city residents extremely hard.

“We need to look at death differently than we did before the virus,” teacher Wayne White, president of the Bellport Teachers Association in Bellport, New York, told Truthout. “We all know someone who has lost someone. Social workers and guidance counselors are usually the first people to lose their jobs when there are budget shortfalls, but even though our state is facing a huge deficit, we’re going to need more professional counselors and social workers than ever.”

White also worries that because the pandemic has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities, it has widened the achievement gap between white students and students of color.

This also troubles Rann Miller, editor of the four-year-old Urban Education Mixtape Blog. “We were already seeing an enormous opportunity gap for Latinx and Black students before the pandemic,” Miller says. “My fear is that by the time we come back, some students will be behind and schools that push rigor and standards on students who have historically been frustrated by racist instructions will see these issues compounded. School will have to not just get kids back on track academically, but find new, anti-racist ways to educate them. Going back to school as usual is not an option.”

Empowering parents is essential, he says.

Tafshier Cosby-Thomas is the CEO of Parent Impact in Newark, New Jersey, a group dedicated to helping families become more effective advocates for students. “Parents need to be part of the conversation before final determinations are made about reopening, whether to weigh in on the use of personal protective equipment, or to debate allowable gym activities, the availability of after-school programming, or the scheduling of in-person classes,” she told Truthout.

Cosby-Thomas says different families in her community have experienced COVID-19 differently. “Some parents are working at home and they are typically able to help their children use electronic devices and access the internet. Other households don’t have computers or the parents aren’t computer proficient, or don’t speak or read English, and they can’t help their children at all. Some students have had to rely on paper packets of assignments.” Still, she says, despite Parent Impact’s efforts, about a third of the kids attending public schools in Newark have fallen through the cracks to some extent. “The schools have reached out; teachers have called, texted, and even made home visits to try and keep the kids connected.”

Chicago primary school teacher Mariama Cosey is similarly adamant that parents need to be partners in their children’s education. “The parent piece is central in moving forward with remote instruction,” she says. “We need face-to-face workshops and meetings for parents to work out the kinks and learn how technology works so they can meet us halfway and help their children learn.”

What they learn is also critically important, says English and special education teacher Monique Lee. As an instructor at the High School for Construction Trades, Engineering and Architecture in Ozone Park, New York, she says that she tries to make assignments socially relevant. “There are moments in history that make us uncomfortable,” she tells Truthout. The current support for Black Lives Matter, she says, challenged some of her students. “I’ve focused on having them write about why social activism is important during COVID-19 and why … protests have been so large and so successful at this particular time.” Lee also highlighted the intersections between all forms of oppression – racism, discrimination against those with intellectual limitations, and against women, the LGBT community and immigrants. “I asked them if these conditions should be a reason someone experiences discrimination and stressed that if Black lives were treated the same as other lives, there would be no issue.”

Ricardo Colon is an instructional coach, guiding teachers at Public School/Intermediate School 30 in Brooklyn, New York. Although he recognizes the importance of relevant curricula, he says that increasing everyone’s comfort level with technology is also vital to educational achievement.

“Before we went remote, New York City public school teachers had three days to prepare. There was no time to create a level baseline for every student — even when we gave out Chromebooks so every family had one,” he says. As the months passed, teachers increasingly developed ways to build online community. “They created ‘dress up’ days, ‘picture days’ and found other ways for the kids to interact with each other. Once this began, the students began to be more engaged. They realized that school is still school and you still have your friends even if you don’t get to see them in person. We also realized that we also need a shared language to talk about instruction.”

Initially, when administrators, educators and parents spoke about devices, many assumed that this included phones and iPads, Colon explains. But when assignments were created, they were typically designed for a laptop.

“We have to say clearly what devices, what technology, we’re talking about, otherwise we unwittingly exacerbate the digital divide,” he explains. “This is something we need to keep in mind when we return to school in the fall or whenever. This will be true no matter what form the return takes, whether we’re back in class, meeting online or doing a hybrid combination.”

For 9-year-old Juliette Keenan, a rising fifth grader at Clinton Elementary School in Maplewood, New Jersey, there’s no question that the hybrid model is best.

“I don’t like remote learning,” Keenan admits. “But I also want to stay healthy and safe.”