We’ve heard a lot over the years about “equity” when it comes to education. The current pandemic, and resulting school closures, are giving a lot of educational leaders the opportunity to show just how serious they are about the issue.
Here’s a hint, in case your educrat decoder ring hasn’t arrived in the mail yet: When there is push back by school leaders saying schools can’t engage in online learning for anyone, out of “equity” concerns for some, they’re not being serious about equity.
Let’s stipulate a few things from the start. Yes, there are gaps – even gulfs – between many families when it comes to resources, including devices and internet access. Yes, while some of us enjoy the flexibility to work from home, many others can’t earn a paycheck without going to a job – a job that may have been shuttered, or its hours cut, as shelter-in-place orders proliferate. Those are real-life problems and differences, and they’re only the ones directly related to the present pandemic.
But, just as with other challenges exacerbated by income disparities, we can’t let these road blocks become dead ends – not if we’re truly interested in narrowing those gaps for as many children and as many families as possible. We need a pathway to ensure all students have the opportunity to learn.
This is more true in the present crisis, not less.
If we take equity concerns seriously, we must recognize not everyone will stand still. Those with means are not going to let their kids treat the last two to three months of school as an extended summer vacation. They know a cornucopia of free online learning tools awaits; Google returns 1.75 billion hits for the search “free online educational resources.” From the top of the results page:
“225+ Free Online Learning Resources for Teachers and Parents”
“200 Free Kids Educational Resources: Lessons, Apps, Books …”
“57 Free Educational Websites Parents Can Access While Schools Are Closed”
The point is families with means will find and use other resources, if schools don’t provide them. Refusing to provide them doesn’t produce equity; it means those who already have advantages will move further ahead. And those students who lack devices or internet access or even guidance will fall even further behind.
How can we let that happen to students who already face higher hurdles to get an education?
Americans are acting to overcome the material challenges. Many internet service providers are offering free packages, or removing limits on existing plans. South Carolina is deploying WiFi-enabled school buses to areas with clusters of students who lack internet access.
Some Georgia districts are outfitting school buses, too. We could put them statewide for a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars in education-targeted funding due from the federal CARES Act.
We can also address the lack of devices for some students. Despite financial hardship, numerous Georgians are looking for ways to be helpful through charity. School districts are still paying many of their expenses, but other expenses are shrinking: utility bills for shuttered school buildings; fuel for school buses that aren’t running routes; wages for substitute teachers who may be needed less frequently; costs related to athletic seasons that have been canceled; expenses for year-end banquets and other events. Some of that money could be redirected to help purchase devices to be loaned.
What’s needed is the will to move forward and ensure learning continues.
Some states aren’t simply leaving it to individual districts to decide. The state educational agency in Texas, for example, made it clear local districts will have flexibility regarding the number of hours students receive instruction – but they won’t continue to receive state funding if they don’t offer any instruction at all.
Hard times are trying, but they’re also times when Americans rise to the occasion, sometimes more than they thought possible. We’ll judge schools’ responses to the present crisis by whether they treated it as an excuse to be cited, or an obstacle to be overcome.
• Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.