– Peter Santoro –
When tragedy strikes us here in the United States, we emerge from the crisis with a “new normal.” After 9/11, the US implemented security measures to enhance our safety and security. Before 9/11, would anyone ever have thought that we would have to take off our shoes before boarding an airplane? After the “great recession” of the early 2000s, the “new normal” that resulted was tighter financial controls and oversight. As educators, we need to look at this crisis and think about what our “new normal” could look like as we emerge from this as well.
Being stuck inside during this pandemic had afforded me the opportunity to watch a lot of TV news and read a great deal of news both in the newspaper and online. One issue that has caught my interest is the economic divide that has become magnified as the education system moves to online learning. Before this pandemic hit the United States, there was already a significant gap in the educational system. Poor, typically underrepresented students, were largely under-educated. This is not just in urban areas. Pew Research published a report entitled: About a quarter of rural Americans say access to high-speed internet is a major problem. These families, in large numbers, also lack laptops, home computers, or other devices for their family members to use.
When schools moved to online instruction, these students had very little chance of maintaining any semblance of parity with their more privileged classmates. NYC public schools, to their credit, recognized this and are providing iPads or Chromebooks, as well as internet hotspots, to families who need these accommodations. What about the millions of other families who are in areas where the school administration does not acknowledge this disparity? In our Flipped Learning community, we talk about reaching every student. In our context, this means reaching every student in our classes. In a more global sense, reaching every student, no matter where they are or what their socio-economic status is should be just as much of a priority for the education community. CNET discussed the “Digital Divide” in their reporting on March 18, 2020.
I recognize there is a significant economic impact from this pandemic; however, millions of students who are now falling further and further behind in their education. There has been a great deal of discussion at both the federal and state levels about this, but nothing has been done. Those students who were falling behind little by little, year after year, are now tumbling backward at a much faster rate. They may never be able to catch up.
I have a close friend who is involved in trying to address this educational disparity. He experienced it firsthand with his own son. He recently said something that really impacted me: “education is currency.” If we examine multigenerational poverty in this country, there is a common thread that runs through challenged communities: lack of education. There has been testimony at both the state and federal levels. Everyone admits this is wrong, but nobody does anything to rectify the situation. Whether it be at the federal level or the state level, legislators need to stop talking and, instead, take action. Reaching every student should mean EVERY student, no matter their socio-economic status or their ethnicity.
There are school districts here on Long Island with high concentrations of minorities with low income. The pattern of student achievement in these districts is far behind even the average school districts. Funding also lags behind more affluent districts since school budgets are typically funded by property taxes, which themselves are tied directly to the value of homes in the district. NYS tries to close the gap with additional state funding for these districts; however, if students do not have devices or even internet access, they are unable to work from home like their more fortunate classmates can. These students feel more disenfranchised every year as they fall further and further behind. This robs these students and their families of hope for a brighter future. Unfortunately, this has been an ongoing downward spiral for several generations.
This is a multi-faceted problem. A cultural shift needs to take place with the disenfranchised population. This cultural shift needs to take place first at the governmental level to close the gap that exists. The next shift that needs to take place is on the part of local schools and school districts. In rural areas, this is an even bigger challenge due to distance and physical isolation. However, every child deserves the best public education that we, as a country, can provide.
As we look back and reflect, this pandemic will expose many weaknesses in our education system here in the United States. We need to learn from the unfortunate situation that has been thrust upon us all. Real focus and change can and should take place. We have a unique opportunity to reframe society and past societal norms. The opportunity to truly reach every student is something that every level of government needs to recognize and embrace, and the time is now to embrace it.