What the fall holds for students, families, and communities is deeply uncertain. It is hard to know how young people in K-12 will keep their distance as class sizes have increased, cafeterias serve meals in enclosed spaces, and those big yellow buses take kids to school and back home again. Children are no fans of rule enforcement, of keeping social distance, or masks.
What happens if we see a spike of COVID-19 cases? Schools must again pivot to online instruction. At the time of this writing, over four million Americans have tested positive for the virus. A second wave shutdown could bring more unemployment, more evictions. The misery index in both causes and symptoms could rise with more substance abuse, anger and instability in homes, and risk of homelessness and hunger.
I commend school districts and school boards that are drawing up plans with input from parents and communities. They know that there are hundreds of contingencies to consider because schools are only as healthy as the families and communities they serve. Many parents need children in schools to return to work because we lack affordable child care. And 50 million kids in American public schools need to attend classes to make up for months of isolation. They need other adults to see and to talk to, in addition to learning skills and habits that create well-rounded, responsible citizens.
Schooling sounds like a nearly impossible job, doesn’t it?
That near impossibility is why public schools need the public’s full support. Schools need funding for qualified health care staff for virus checks, custodial staff to clean high-touch areas and alter the layout of rooms and facilities to enable social distancing. Schools need funds to improve ventilation inside older buildings where students spend hours each day. Education at all levels is an essential enterprise for the functioning of this nation and schools deserve overwhelming support of the public.
Mandating all face-to-face schooling is not an answer; it may not be feasible. Having some kind of hybrid, staggered schedule with online components may be a compromise, but only if there is technological infrastructure like bandwidth ready to go and equipment like laptops and tablets accessible and provided to every student to use, along with family support so that students can keep up with their lessons.
Higher education encounters similar challenges. I write here of my own experience teaching first-year college students, having to pivot to online instruction at mid-term this spring. I lost nearly half of enrolled first-year students as they worked from home. I heard their stories: a mother’s cancer diagnosis while the student was trying to pivot to online lessons, a student returned home to parent three smaller siblings while trying to finish course work and another with such poor internet that she drove around to find a Wi-Fi hotspot parking lot so she could do the reading for class.
Saddest of all was the loss of all my African American male students. They stopped attending Zoom sessions, work undone. I didn’t hear their stories because they simply disappeared. In this basic university class, I knew that my students came from vastly different circumstances. While we were still on campus, I enjoyed conversations with a bright, eloquent young man from Philly in my class who suffered from severe PTSD because of gun violence and killings he witnessed as a boy. He was one of the young men that I lost, a man of sensitivity and potential who simply disappeared and erased his college future for at least half of that year.
Coronavirus has laid bare disparities between the middle class and poorer students, those with good internet access and stability at home and those who struggled before coming to campus, then returned to homes in stress and with insufficient resources. We need to close the digital divide now before schools resume, having plans in place for the unpredictability of public health, and assuring educational access to our young people. We need to invest in our youth and prepare for what the next academic cycle will bring.
S. E. Gilman, who lives in Monroe Township, has worked in social services, publishing, at booksellers, in kitchens, and academia. She has taught writing and literacy education and tutoring in universities, community settings, at a correctional institution, and on Native reservations.