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Students Face Unequal Access During COVID-19 Shutdown

The way we’re choosing to educate children during the pandemic will lead to an education crisis, says education scholar.

We look at the impact of the pandemic on schools, universities, students, parents, teachers and professors — and who is at the table to shape what happens next. “We now have an economic crisis on top of the public health crisis, and the ways that we’re choosing to educate children is simply unequal and is going to lead to an educational crisis,” says education scholar and Cornell University professor Noliwe Rooks, author of Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York. Juan González is co-hosting from New Jersey, as we turn to the impact of the pandemic on schools, universities, students, parents, teachers and professors. Here in New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, home to the largest school district in the United States, public schools have been closed since March 16th. At least 68 Education Department staffers have died from coronavirus, including 28 teachers, 25 teacher’s assistants, also administrators, office workers, school aides, food service workers, guidance counselors, a parent coordinator and a technology specialist.

On Tuesday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new grading system for the rest of the coronavirus-disrupted school year and said some so-called underperforming students may be enrolled in virtual summer school. This is is Mayor de Blasio.

MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: We want to make sure the grading policy we use now fits the moment we’re in now and the reality of our kids, our parents, our educators now. So, the chancellor, his team worked with parents, teachers, elected officials, advocates, listened to all different viewpoints. We’ve had a series of conversations confirming the direction of this policy. And it came down to the notion of what we owe our kids at this moment: first of all, flexibility.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school system in the U.S., has announced no student will receive an F grade. California Governor Gavin Newsom said the state’s academic year could start in late July or early August, and some K-through-12 campuses may reopen to offer summer school programs.

Meanwhile, here in New York, at least 12, and possibly as many as 17, faculty and staff in the public City University of New York system have died since the coronavirus pandemic began, including five at Brooklyn College. This comes as universities nationwide face massive financial losses from closing down their campuses and moving instruction online during the pandemic.

For more on all this, we’re joined by education scholar Noliwe Rooks, the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of literature at Cornell University, where she’s also director of American studies and a professor in Africana studies. She’s the author of Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, joining us from her home in Ithaca, New York. She’ll be the featured guest tonight at a virtual community conversation on the future of public schools in Queens after COVID-19.

Professor Rooks, welcome to Democracy Now! What has the coronavirus pandemic exposed about education in America?

NOLIWE ROOKS: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me.

I think, as we’ve seen in so many other areas, the pandemic is exposing, just shining a light on, inequalities that are already there, as we see people who are impacted, who are falling ill, tend to be poor, tend to be Black, Latinx. The children who are suffering the most with this closing down of schools share similar kinds of demographics.

One of the things that is perplexing — and hopefully we can come out of the other end of this really taking this seriously — is we had absolutely no conversation. There were no emergency plans for closing of schools, for ceasing education. When it became clear that it was putting teachers and students and, as you mentioned, the numbers of educational workers who have lost their lives or fallen ill attempting to stay in classrooms, we had no plans for what happens if you take schooling offline. We quickly, across the country, New York City and elsewhere, decided on remote education.

There are two things about that that are particularly disturbing. One, the fact that something as central to communities, as central to children, as central to vulnerable communities as public education — public education is not just about education for vulnerable communities. It’s also about healthcare. It’s also about mental health stability. It’s about — for some kids, it’s about where you get your clothes washed. It’s about where you get the food you’re going to eat during the day. To take something that central offline, in a hodgepodge, in a rush, without even thinking that disaster preparation should account for, like, what we do in the absence.

The second thing is, what we have put in place instead of in-person education is online schooling. What education scholars, what scholars — this is not even an open question anymore — know is online education advantages some children and disadvantages, severely disadvantages, others. Communities that cannot have easy access to fast, to stable internet, it matters. The ways that those children are able to learn, to keep up, to have their learning abilities evaluated, you just can’t do it as easily. A majority of poor Black and Latinx families access their internet through their phone, so there’s additional charges that are racked up when they have to use their phones to try to access learning. We know that. We also know that in terms of standardized tests, in terms of closing gaps in educational learning, online learning consistently performs worse than any other delivery method. We know that from 20 years’ worth of research. It’s not something new.

So, in this moment of crisis — which it was a crisis — something had to happen. You know, it wasn’t — couldn’t be planned for. That’s what a disaster is. We both shut down schools in a way that further harmed certain kids, and we instituted a kind of learning that’s going to cause an educational pandemic once these schools reopen.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Rooks, I wanted to ask you. At Rutgers University, one of my teams — I teach investigative reporting. I had — one of my teams, that’s doing a project on the coronavirus, did a survey of several hundred Rutgers students precisely on this issue of remote teaching. And the figures they came up with were astounding. Eighty-five percent of the students who responded to the survey said that their ability to concentrate, in the shift to online classes — 85% of them said — was extremely affected or very much affected. And also, 71% of them said that their home environment was poor for being able to actually participate in the classes, in online classes. So, there is a — this is at the university level.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now take this down to the public school level. Your sense of the impact that this is having even on the ability of students to learn?

NOLIWE ROOKS: Right. You know, we’re seeing things like children who are sitting on a sidewalk in front of a McDonald’s because there’s stable Wi-Fi there, looking for some Wi-Fi so that they can in fact complete the assignments. They want to learn. They want to keep up. They want to do well. But this form of education makes it difficult.

Much like your students at Rutgers, I have students all across the socioeconomic spectrum in my classes. I have students who went back to homes that were housing insecure in New York City, in various family shelters, where the Wi-Fi is spotty at best. And I have students whose families became involved in ICE actions in the period between the declaration of the emergency and when they had to go home, and trying to navigate all of that; and now students, you know, whose parents are unemployed, whose family members have died. So, I know, as you do, firsthand, from a college perspective, how disruptive this is.

It’s not a leap to think, you know, students who were already at risk, who were already vulnerable, who were already in families worried about their ability to make ends meet, we now have an economic crisis on top of the public health crisis. And the ways that we’re choosing to educate children is simply unequal and is going to lead to an educational crisis, an educational pandemic, on the other side.

You cannot ask students to perform well with a medium that requires a lot of concentration. You really have to pay attention, and you have to know how to make your computer work if it goes off. You have to know what to do if your Wi-Fi all of a sudden goes down, in the midst of trying to learn new concepts, of trying to learn foundational knowledge that you’re going to need to continue to move through the educational system. It is disruption on top of disruption on top of disruption for communities and children who can least afford it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m also wondering if you’ve been following the experiment that Los Angeles — unlike many of the other places around the country, in Los Angeles, the local public television station immediately switched to having different bands of its spectrum to provide instruction to different classes. I haven’t heard this happening in many other places around the country, using public television, which is obviously accessible to many more people, to be able to get instruction out to students.

NOLIWE ROOKS: That’s a great idea. And that is — no, I have not heard about that, and I had not been following it.

I do know, all over the country, though, you are seeing businesses, parents, activists and families get together to talk about what would work best for them, what they think needs to happen. There have been some calls for allowing children to access the Wi-Fi in public schools. We can’t have instruction take place in New York City public schools for a variety of reasons, but is it the case that children on school grounds could not access that Wi-Fi in order to have something stable? There are people who are asking for creativity in this moment.

And certainly, as we think about what happens on the other side, we don’t know when schools are going to open up again. We don’t know what form. We don’t know. But we know that there’s going to be a other side of this. And as we reach that other side, I’m hopeful that we do not repeat some of the unintentional mistakes that were made when we shut things down, when we did not ask, school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, “What do you need from us?” What is it that — give them a seat at the table. Give folks who are most impacted a seat at the table and say, just ask the question, “How can we bring these schools back online in a way that does not disadvantage your children? What do you know that we need to know?” And I think we’re at a point in the crisis where we need that kind of creativity and collaboration.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the mental health of young people right now, who are at home, who, you know, in a lot of cases, either they don’t have access to screens or their parents didn’t want them to, now of course online all the time? And also, this vision you have of the future? You have the president of Brown University saying if schools don’t reopen in the fall — higher education — higher education is imperiled.


AMY GOODMAN: Now, most kids go to public schools —


AMY GOODMAN: — whether we’re talking about community colleges, whether we’re talking about public universities. What about all of this, that we don’t even know what’s going to happen, and the inequitable, very different kind of endowments that the Ivy Leagues have versus the rest of higher education in this country? Are we going to see a closing of hundreds of schools?

NOLIWE ROOKS: Right. You know, one of the things — the conversation about higher education is sort of mirroring the conversation that we’re having about K-12 in that we’re tending to — we’re not. Our public policy, our sense of urgency is not around children who are most in need or institutions that are serving children who are most in need.

The vast majority, well over 50%, well over 60%, of Black and Latinx kids who get BAs, who get college degrees, do so at community colleges or for-profit universities, not at four-year institutions, and certainly not at schools like one that I teach — in which I teach. But the conversation about reopening colleges and universities has so far excluded community colleges almost wholly. I’m hearing very little in the national media about what is the impact on community colleges, where most of these kids are actually being served.

It’s a similar phenomena that you’re finding with K-12, where there’s almost no conversation about the kind and the quality of instruction that’s even taking place online based on the socioeconomic background of the kids. Some kids are having — some of the plans entail them having limited — like 40 minutes a week or two 40-minute sessions a week, that actually involve the computer. And the rest of the times, not even online, parents are being asked to step in, are being given different kinds of worksheets and plans, and they are being asked to step in and to help ensure that kids are completing this work. The parents have different abilities to offer that kind of help.

So, in both K-12 as well as in higher education, as is so often the case, our public policy is not starting from the bottom up. It’s starting from the top down. It’s starting with what works best. In a time of crisis when we’re all impacted, it’s still asking, “What works best for the most wealthy?”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, this is a conversation that we’ll have to continue. Noliwe Rooks, we want to thank you for joining us, the W.E.B. Du Bois professor of literature at Cornell University, author of Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.

That does it for our broadcast. Democracy Now! is working with as few people on site as possible. The majority of our amazing team is working from home. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!, Stay safe.

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