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Vulnerable Students Are Getting Left Behind in 2020, But These Teachers Have a Plan

In the debate over reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one group that stands to lose the most either way: low-income families. When SheKnows teamed up with Rolling Stone to speak to a panel of teachers and parents about how schools are operating this fall, those vulnerable students and parents were at the top of everyone’s mind. The situation is dire this fall, but our conversation left us feeling that if these experts were in charge, they’d actually come up with ways to make education equitable, in the pandemic and beyond.

“Every parent would love for the schools to open and for their children to go to school, but they want that safely,” Christine Tang, executive director of community-based organization Families of Color Seattle said at the our Back to School Roundtable. “And that’s the key word: ‘safely.’ … The concerns are higher because the risks of contagion are much higher where there’s population density in higher numbers. … Unfortunately, when we talk about many families of color who are socioeconomically in a position where they might have to choose between their livelihood, their jobs, and the ability to support students at home, that’s a really tough choice that no parent, no family should have to make in our society.”

In Seattle and many other school districts across the country, parents have little choice in the matter, since schools remain in a distance-learning format for the safety of teachers and children. In some places, such as New York City and New Orleans, communities are attempting to fill the childcare gaps by providing centers where kids can meet in small groups and do their online learning while their parents work. If spaces that are otherwise being unused, such as college auditoriums and closed restaurants, can be utilized for this purpose, there may be enough space for children to remain socially distant and still cared for. But that system is far from universal and far from perfect right now.

Special needs met … and unmet

The schools themselves are working on taking care of kids too, either at home or in reopened classrooms. When schools closed in March, Ashley Graves, a secondary self-contained special education teacher with Uplift Education (a public charter school in Dallas, Texas), and Laura Dow, a special education teacher at Stonington High School in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, were able to rely on online communities of teachers to form a curriculum that would work for their special-needs students.

“I did have a really good experience this spring, but there were several factors that went into that,” Dow said. “I teach in a district where we have low caseloads; we have enough teachers for each student; there’s iPads if needed. Every student was given a Chromebook. Every student was given a Wi-Fi hotspot.”

Dow’s principal also gave her a budget to use the site Teachers Pay Teachers, which allows teachers from all over the world to sell or share digital learning resources they’ve created, such as Google Slides, online worksheets, and more.

“If I hadn’t had access to those things … it would have been really hard and I would have been up very late many nights,” she said.

Graves, who is a fellow with Urban Teachers, said other educators in her program also stepped in to help each other.

“[On a] Friday, we found out that we weren’t going back to school; by Monday, I had built an entire classroom website and I sent it to the parents,” Graves said of what she was able to do for her students. “Having not just support from the teachers from my district, but also the support from my program made it feel not as difficult as it otherwise could have been, but I also recognize that we’re coming from a place of privilege as well, because in my district, all of a sudden we had Chromebooks and they were just sending them out to parents.”

But Mitch Springer, principal of Villa Rica Middle School in Villa Rica, Georgia, said that it was clear that some of his school’s students, particularly those with special needs, were not receiving anything like the kind of education they would in person.

“A lot of our children live in generational poverty, so their parents don’t have the mental know-how to aid them where a teacher could in the building, so it was a little harder for us to actually provide those things that need to happen for special needs students in terms of their progress, monitoring every week, getting the data that we need to make those sound educational decisions,” he explained.

This fall, however, they’re more prepared to bridge those gaps.

“We’ve actually purchased Chromebooks, so we have 1:1 technology,” Springer said. “Through the CARES Act, we were able to get a grant to provide Internet hotspots to students. We’re working with local churches and different buildings that have parking lots within our community to provide those hotspots.”

Support & understanding for parents

Though Springer’s school district opened for in-person learning last week, it is also offering a virtual-only option, and he said the majority of families that chose to keep their kids at home were Black and Latinx households that have the most reason to fear COVID-19 spread in the community.

Other educators agreed that parents needed more help on the technology side to make remote learning work.

“I really would like to see more schools and more districts offering parents support like, ‘Hey, it’s OK if you don’t know how to use this technology. Instead of just sending you all of this information, we are going to take an active role in not just teaching your children, but teaching you how to use it, because this is valuable for you as well. And we want to make sure that you feel supported,'” Graves said.

Amid pressures to keep educating students in these difficult circumstances and to maintain their own health and safety, teachers and administrators also find themselves having to check in on students’ wellbeing. While they used to be able to see a child’s physical state when they showed up in classrooms, now they have to guess at whether something is wrong when a child doesn’t log on to their virtual classrooms. In the spring, we heard of cases in which parents and teenagers have been treated like criminals for not showing up. But most teachers say that they’re trying a more nuanced approach.

“One of the conversations I had with so many teachers, especially teachers that were serving communities of color, was this tension between wanting to make sure kids were getting what they needed and holding them to high expectations, but also knowing that their communities have been so hard hit that they didn’t know whether potentially a family member had been sick,” said Lynette Guastaferro, chief executive officer of Teaching Matters, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing teacher effectiveness. “They felt a responsibility to engage kids and make sure that kids weren’t losing that time, from a place of really wanting to support them.”

What happens if we do nothing

Education scholars have one recent example of what happens when education is interrupted for some but not all students for an extended period of time: Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

“One of the things that they did experience for multiple years post-Katrina was the gaps in kids’ learning and the diversity in terms of [those] gaps, it was it was huge, and they were dealing with them for multiple years afterwards,” Guastaferro said.

This year, the gaps are going to be not just between rich kids who had nannies and private pod tutors, but also between those whose parents were essential workers or who were sick with COVID-19, and those whose parents stayed home with them.

“I think that it’s going to be an incredibly challenging thing to come back from this,” Guastaferro said. “And it’s going to require persistence, and double the effort and resources — way more resources put into education to address this in the next few years.”

A vision to fix this

As the federal government continues to fail at passing another stimulus package that could, theoretically, help schools make education safe and equitable, we engaged in a little thought experiment with the panel. We asked each of them how they would solve this crisis if someone handed them unlimited money and control over schools (with, alas, no COVID vaccine) and their answers were swift:

“It be awesome for every school to have multiple tents outside, so that we can get outside and learn and provide just some just some break from the fluorescent lights and the masks.” — Laura Dow

“I would want to provide teachers more money; because our teachers now are having to do face-to-face instruction and digital instruction at the same time, so [I would want to] provide them compensation for the hard work that they’re doing.” — Mitch Springer

“More staff and more space because the teachers are really doing a phenomenal job with what they’re given, but we just need we need more space so that we can actually do the things and engage in the ways we want to engage and not have to stress so much about the things that the limited space provides. And I would also provide a calm space, a de-stressing area for the teachers and for the students.” — Katherine Ann Unsicker, a gifted teacher at Haralson County Schools in Georgia

“Public health measures — having temperature checks often, using testing, large scale.” — Christine Tang

“Given the complexity of this face-to-face and online learning, at every grade level, teachers need one assistant to support them.” — Lynette Guastaferro,

“I know that when you’re hungry and when you’re tired, you do not learn as effectively. So I would definitely want some of that some of those resources to be going [telling families], ‘You know what? You don’t even have to spend the gas money. We will drive the food out to you. It’s three square meals. You don’t have to worry about this.'” — Ashley Graves

Whether your kids are learning in person or remotely, these fun new school supplies should brighten their day.

Fun Back to School supplies

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