For the sake of equity, reopen schools — digitally, with exceptions

For the sake of equity, reopen schools — digitally, with exceptions
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My career in education includes four years as a high school math teacher and 15 years as a policy leader and researcher. Now, I’m also the parent of a rising second-grader who — as a result of the pandemic — spent the last few months of first grade engaged in the type of homeschooling that so many have now been baptized in: digital learning. 

Like many parents of school-aged children around the world, we were caught by surprise when the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools. We had to secure a laptop for a 7-year-old and figure out how to use the school district’s online portals to find and submit daily assignments. It took some getting used to, but we learned and we adapted to our “new normal” for the sake of keeping our son on track. We are privileged in that we have the resources, expertise and flexibility to handle this shift while mitigating the harmful effects that being wrenched from the structure of traditional schooling and social interactions could have on our son’s development.

Now, as the nation grapples with the start of a new school year, the only approach that makes sense — for better or worse — is the large-scale expansion of digital learning.

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Why? For the health and safety of students and their teachers.

Resuming large-scale, in-person instruction during the pandemic will increase rates of infection. It is unrealistic to expect that kids will maintain social distancing for six hours a day, and there’s added risk in school districts that don’t plan to require face masks for in-person instruction or while transporting students on school buses.

And what about the teachers? There are 3.8 million K-12 teachers across the U.S., more than a quarter of whom are age 50 or older and therefore more vulnerable to severe illness and hospitalization from COVID-19 infection. Many are being asked to teach in person, while school board leaders make decisions by videoconference from the safety of their homes.

Although my family is privileged in many ways, many students will suffer the consequences of being sequestered at home for their own safety. We have seen the insidious learning losses that come from inconsistent access to digital tools and other, more pressing concerns such as the child hunger epidemic that has been festering below the coronavirus pandemic. Significantly reducing the number of teachers and students in our school buildings this fall will make it safer for students with severe disabilities, other learning challenges, or pressing needs to convene in-person where necessary, and not miss out on crucial growth and development that can be provided only by trained specialists.

How can we do this? Universal internet access, hot spots, whatever it takes to bridge the digital divide across our communities.

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We know that low-income families, rural communities and students of color are less likely to have broadband internet access, which before COVID-19 may have seemed a luxury to some, rather than an essential utility. However, it has become clear that unequal access to digital learning will have an impact on the already troubling achievement and opportunity gaps, especially between white and black children. 

We must make broadband internet available to every student who needs it for digital learning, both now and permanently. The Georgia Department of Education’s partnership with Verizon to expand wireless services to 10 states, serving 12.5 million K-12 students, can be a model. And in Baltimore, elected leaders, students and community organizers are mobilizing to demand a type of digital equity from broadband providers. Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen recently introduced a resolution calling on Comcast “to increase download and upload speeds for its Internet Essentials program, extend that program beyond when schools can physically reopen and to open up all public hotspots for free access.”

My former boss, Secretary of Education Arne DuncanArne Starkey DuncanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: White House, Dems debate coronavirus relief package For the sake of equity, reopen schools — digitally, with exceptions It's up to local leaders: An Iowa perspective on reopening schools MORE, was known to say, “Education is the civil rights issue of our generation,” and sometimes further remarked that “it is a daily fight for social justice.” He’s right. In fact, given the widespread income inequality and residential segregation in America, the need for digital-only instruction that we are currently witnessing has landed us right back in a separate, but [un]equal civil rights crisis. 

Right now, the level of wealth and the available resources in a kid’s family or neighborhood determines whether they have equal access to digital learning to help them keep pace with their peers, and we have to do better.

Terris Ross, Ph.D., is vice president of policy and advocacy at Leadership for Educational Equity. She is a former research scientist at the National Center for Education Statistics and evaluation team lead in the Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development at the Department of Education.