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July 1, 2020
Vol. 77
No. 10

Why COVID-19 Is Our Equity Check

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During my childhood summers, my sisters and I stayed inside our one-bedroom apartment for days on end. Nice weather in our Bronx neighborhood meant more people socializing at bodegas and on building stoops, which often led to more troublemaking. If we ventured outside, there was always the chance of being hit by a stray bullet. Today, more than two decades later, the world is different, and though I am light years away from the one-bedroom apartment on Creston Avenue, I still carry with me the fear and anxiety from my own and our nation's past traumas.
As I sit in my apartment after days inside, having developed the stamina for a life indoors, I cannot help but thinking of our young people, who've grown up in a time of rampant school shootings, and who are now enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. Their school lessons ended abruptly—projects unfinished, conversations pending, graduations cancelled, and pivotal experiences stolen. I worry about how our youth are feeling as they adjust to all their recent losses and our new normal, one characterized by social distancing.
And social distancing is not the same for everyone—for our students and adults alike. Although I was fortunate to grow up in a loving and nurturing home, some children risk abuse and violence more frequently now that they may be in the constant presence of their perpetrators. Others might have small homes like I did as a child, leaving little room to do anything without the distraction of relatives or siblings and the resulting frustration of having no personal space. Some students, conversely, are home all alone, since their caregivers do not have the privilege of jobs that keep them safely inside. A few might feel alienated by embarrassment about where they live, as I did during my boarding school years when my classmates' parents forbade them from dropping me off in what they referred to as my "dangerous" neighborhood.

Magnifying Existing Problems

Most of all, the novel coronavirus outbreak has put a mirror in front of our faces, magnifying the inequities in our school systems—and in our society—that too many of us have allowed to exist without question. Districts like New York City agonized over closing schools for far longer than they should have because officials had to confront an ethical dilemma: risk greater infections or put millions of children out on the streets, since many of them depend on schools not only for an education but also for food and basic supports, and some even for safe shelter during the day. The fact that closing schools presented such a challenge for districts nationally should be something that upsets us greatly.
Fortunately, many districts and schools are still offering free meals, but the safe haven and the opportunities for academic, social, and emotional learning are a bit more difficult to provide when everyone is dispersed. Some districts have provided children tablets, but there are still far too many students without the necessary tools for distance learning, including reliable internet service. For example, I recently heard about a 4th grade girl in Georgia named Trinity who started selling lemonade in her neighborhood to earn money for a computer so that she could participate in schoolwork. Jasmine Crowe, founder of Goodr, which aims to end hunger through minimizing food waste, encountered Trinity's stand and put her plea on Twitter. Within a day, people from across the country made donations, helping Trinity raise sufficient funds, and my friend Mary Jo Madda of Google even bought her a tablet. This is one beautiful story of the human spirit, but many more children will not be as lucky as Trinity. We should not have had to wait until a pandemic to provide all children with what they need to thrive as learners in and out of school.

Building Partnerships

During this fragile time, collaborations like the one that amplified Trinity's story are crucial. Thankfully, organizations like PCs for People and EveryoneOn have always worked to connect families to free and affordable computers and internet service. And now phone and cable and internet companies are stepping up to fill the digital gaps. But it is difficult not to wonder why we haven't invested in our young people's educational resources and access more generously before. This is a question we must ponder and continue to ask on the other side of the pandemic, especially since educational equity requires partnerships between groups—inside and outside of the school system.
One such partnership is with our students' families. With our new reliance on caregivers to support student learning, the urgency to be more welcoming to families as partners has become far greater, as has eradicating the obstacles that get in the way of family engagement: language barriers, the digital divide, and the fact that some caregivers have been failed by inadequate schooling or suffer from learning challenges. How can we begin to prioritize the goal of making academic content and school resources more accessible? And how can we provide information in easy and comprehensible ways, so that any caregiver can support their young family members?
Despite all that we do to help families, despite trying to get children the digital resources they need, not all children are capable of learning online, especially since many of the online learning options do not take into account children who are hard of hearing, visually impaired, physically challenged, or have developmental delays. And some distance-learning resources are not translated into students' home languages, nor do they take into account scholars who aren't yet meeting grade-level requirements.
Therefore, as we embark on figuring out distance learning at scale, we must consider a variety of methods for engaging learners—calling students by phone, sending tutorial videos, and allowing students to demonstrate their understanding through varied methods. As we come up with remote-learning lessons, let's consider employing projects that rely on what families have at their disposal (resources and capabilities), and invite students to select topics that are not only relevant and interesting to them, but also tied to devising solutions to their current realities.
Another helpful idea is to create school projects that are relevant to the whole family and allow family members to do activities together (if safe and possible)—like making bread or using math to convert the portions for more or less people (for middle schoolers), or organizing a closet by color and texture (for younger students). Additionally, part of our support to families must include social and emotional resources for managing uncomfortable feelings, as well as giving families the brave space to feel and communicate their feelings—and ways to opt out of activities and assignments that cause too much strain on everyone in the home.

Learning from the Pauses

In the end, I do not have all the answers to the questions that this pandemic has forced educators to contemplate—but I know that there was a time before computers, tablets, and cell phones when teaching and learning happened, when we figured out how to lead a life. I know that we are capable of ingenuity, of adapting, and of healing. I know that we can learn from the pauses in our lives and use them as opportunities to reflect and reevaluate what's important to us. What will COVID-19 teach us? What will it inspire us to change? What will we have to improve to engage our students and families more meaningfully and equitably?
In the coming months, when we return to some level of normalcy, we will not be the same. We will be a bit shaken, maybe even a bit more paranoid about germs, but I hope we will have learned to be more deliberate about human connection, more purposeful about educating all children well, more aware of the power of human goodness, and more focused on partnering with families and organizations to educate all youth.
On some level, COVID-19 is our equity check, reminding us of who we could be if we valued equity as much as we say we do. Let's not wait until the next pandemic to get it right. If we do, the ones who will suffer will be the ones who always suffer—the people most in need. This novel virus is a wake-up call, an opportunity for us to come together to do and be better for every single child.

Dena Simmons is an activist, educator, and student of life from The Bronx, New York and founder of LiberatED, a collective focused on developing school-based resources at the intersection of social and emotional learning (SEL), racial justice, and healing. 

Simmons writes and speaks nationally about social justice and culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy as well as creating emotionally intelligent and safe classrooms within the context of equity and liberation. Her appearances include the White House, the inaugural Obama Foundation Summit, the United Nations, two TEDx talks, and a TED talk on Broadway. 

She is former Assistant Director of Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of the forthcoming book, White Rules for Black People

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