In wake of pandemic, the new normal in schools could widen the economic gap among students, educators fear

School buses with four out of five seats empty, daily temperature checks, students in school buildings just one or two days a week (but for a longer school year) — these are some of the drastic changes likely coming for many of the more than 50 million public school students this fall. With the coronavirus expected to remain a threat through at least next spring and a reliance on “distance learning” likely to continue, the burden will fall most heavily on the neediest students, living in homes lacking computers, internet connectivity or adults at home during the school day, and school officials nationwide are grappling with how to ensure they don’t fall further behind.

School districts are weighing the limitations inherent to distance learning as they consider models for next year, according to Daniel Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. For example, some school districts are planning to prioritize elementary-age students for in-person spots because administrators believe barriers to online learning can be more easily overcome by older students. Other districts are considering models that will prioritize in-school spots for the neediest students, Domenech said. 

And with state tax revenues in free fall, many districts are scrambling to find money for necessities such as added nurses, personal protective equipment and additional buses to bring students to school safely.

“The cost is going to be incredible, and where’s the money going to be?” Domenech said. “Because right now what most districts are looking at are significant cuts in their budgets.” School superintendents, he said, “are not sleeping well at night” as they struggle to confront these challenges.

President Trump with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in the White House Rose Garden on May 15. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Last week, tensions over school closures burst into public view when President Trump chastised Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, after Fauci told a Senate committee that he worries about the many unknown facets of the virus and how it affects children. 

With reopening schools to allow parents to return to work seen as a necessity for jump-starting the economy, the issue of how to do so safely has become politically charged. North Carolina’s Republican-controlled state Legislature has mandated that the state’s schools reopen Aug. 17 regardless of coronavirus infection rates, sparking an outcry from labor unions representing educators.

Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, said that while she is generally in favor of reopening schools in the fall, doing so will require careful planning and expensive safety precautions. She said the delayed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posed a major challenge, particularly since the Department of Education has been completely disengaged. The CDC released information for reopening schools on Tuesday.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, at a conference in February. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“One of the things that North Carolina understands, which we understand as well, is that opening schools is a linchpin for opening the rest of the economy,” Weingarten said in an interview. “Reopening isn’t simply flipping a switch.” She called the North Carolina mandate and the lack of robust, science-based federal guidance on how to reopen schools safely the equivalent of “playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.”

Many school superintendents are forging ahead with plans for the fall — which in many cases involves scrambling to get computers to students living in homes without them.

Voters in Dallas supported an education bond that paid for technology improvements prior to the crisis, so most students are now equipped with devices to use at home, but Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said internet access is the bigger issue in a district where 36,000 families — about 40 percent of the district population — lack internet connectivity.

“We have infrastructure to go up to the front door, but the infrastructure doesn’t knock the door down,” Hinojosa said. “They can’t afford it.” He said the district bought 10,000 hotspots to help students without internet access get online, but the hotspots are far slower than a hard-wired internet connection. Hinojosa said he and the state’s Republican-appointed education commissioner sent the Federal Communications Commission a letter last week asking the agency to soften rules for an agency program that subsidizes broadband access for schools and libraries. Hinojosa said internet access should be considered as essential as water and gas service, particularly during a pandemic that is expected to keep many children home well into next year.  

Dallas’s plan for next year includes potential “four-day rolling shutdowns” whenever a student or teacher in a given school reports a COVID-19 infection so that school officials can test, trace and deep-clean, Hinojosa said. 

Many of Dallas’s public school students are in households well below the poverty line, and in many cases they are also not fluent in English. These students’ parents are still working amid the pandemic, Hinojosa said, and are panicked about how to ensure that their children learn while they are at work.

“A lot of our immigrant families are laborers — they’re the ones who work in the restaurants and the hotels and all these fancy places that we have in Dallas, so they don’t come equipped,” Hinojosa said. “It is certainly an equity issue if you want them to have an equal life chance.”

In Maryland, which has already released a draft plan for how schools will reopen come fall, each district was required to submit a local plan for ensuring equal access to learning from home. In Baltimore County, 32,200 computers have been distributed to elementary-age students, along with 4,000 hotspots to support internet connectivity.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The FCC has estimated that broadband is unavailable to roughly 25 million Americans, the large majority of them in rural communities. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., who introduced legislation last year to close the “homework gap” between rich and poor students based on the technology available to them at home, is now pushing a bill that would generate $4 billion to pay for broadband access for students without it.

“This was an urgent issue before the pandemic hit; now it’s an emergency,” Van Hollen said in an interview. “It’s essential that we close this digital divide in our education system, because it will leave millions of children behind.”

Van Hollen said an estimated 16 percent of students nationwide don’t have access to high-speed internet, and 12 percent are without devices. He said there is substantial bipartisan support for his proposal, which will pump new money into the FCC program subsidizing technology for schools and libraries.

Equipping families with computers and internet access addresses only part of the problem, education advocates say.

“We know the learning loss is going to be massive,” said Terra Wallin, an associate director of the Education Trust, a national advocacy group focused on low-income student achievement. “Essential workers tend to be people who have students who come from low-income families and often communities of color, so those are the students who are being left home. So they’re getting the double whammy of not having access to the materials and not having adult support at home, and possibly being responsible for other things at home, given all of the broader health and economic issues in play.”

Wallin’s organization recently polled parents of 1,200 California students and found that 38 percent of low-income families were concerned about access to distance learning because they don’t have reliable internet at home; 50 percent of low-income families there reported they lacked sufficient devices at home to access distance learning.

Some poor people have started cutting back on shifts at work to help their children manage distance learning. Bridget Hughes, a 30-year-old Burger King shift manager in Kansas City, Mo., said she now works only 27 hours a week so she can be home to help her three children whenever her husband, a gas station attendant, cannot be. But the decision has left Hughes worried about paying her bills, especially now that the family is having to provide two additional meals a day to replace free meals the children used to receive at school. 

“I want to go to work more because I know I need to be able to maintain the rent and the utilities,” Hughes said. “But then on the other hand I know that if I do go to work more, then that’s less time that I have to make sure that my children still get the education they need even though they’re not in the classroom. Because next year when they start school up again, they’re going to be terribly behind if they’re not even learning the lessons that they’re supposed to be retaining now.”

Thumbnail cover photo: Getty Images


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