Grade schools and colleges are opening back up this month, and it’s not going well. Oklahoma State: 23 cases in an off-campus sorority house. 58 cases at Notre Dame after two off-campus parties. At the University of North Carolina, there have been four outbreaks, so far, and they have already shifted back to online learning. Meanwhile, it’s not going any better in schools, where many are closing right after reopening. Unfortunately, we don’t know the full extent of the problem in schools because the federal government is not tracking it.
It is clear that schools are dangerous anywhere there is significant community transmission. Teachers (and their unions) are balking at returning in some places (although, in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to cut funding if the teachers didn’t keep their mouths shut), and I think if teachers are not comfortable returning, those communities should not have school.
But I really hate how remote learning cleaves the hell out America along socioeconomic lines. I am deeply uncomfortable with what no school means for the kids already in worse off positions before the pandemic. Republicans will often make bad faith arguments justifying the reopening of schools based on what the damage it does to low-income students, but the good faith argument is this: It is deeply f**king damaging, and I don’t think that a lot of more privileged folks really take that into account.
When learning moves online, there are a lot of kids who just … don’t. They drop out. In the fourth, fifth, sixth grade, etc. It’s hard enough trying to learn through instruction provided by teachers in two minute videos accompanied by worksheets, but it’s impossible to learn when you don’t even log in, either due to a lack of Internet connection, a lack of a device, or because parents don’t have the time to hover over kids to make them do their online work. You know how hard it is to get an eight-year-old to do four hours of work when there is a yard to be played in or a TV to be watched or a bed to sleep in? If this pandemic lasts a full year, or more, as many anticipate, there are 20-30 percent of school children who will essentially go a full year without learning.
This was the state of play at the end of the last school year, when there was still the expectation that the country might fully return to school in the fall:
A separate analysis of 800,000 students from researchers at Brown and Harvard looked at how Zearn, an online math program, was used both before and after schools closed in March. It found that through late April, student progress in math decreased by about half in classrooms located in low-income ZIP codes, by a third in classrooms in middle-income ZIP codes and not at all in classrooms in high-income ZIP codes.
Not only will poor kids fall woefully behind, but when they return to school, they’ll be measured against better-off-classmates who had the time and resources at home to ensure they did the work. Hell, even the middle-class kids with nice laptops who muddled through the work with the help of their parents, however, will be measured against those f**king pod kids.
I’ve been reading a lot of stories lately about pandemic pods: Here’s one in the Boston Globe, and one in my local newspaper and here’s one in the NYTimes. Basically, parents are paying tutors or teachers or the college kid down the street to devote themselves fully to facilitating their kids’ online learning lessons (or in some cases, they just hire a home-school teacher and pull their kids out of school). Some parents also pool their resources and hire one tutor for multiple kids in the same grade or the same neighborhood, but even those are prohibitively expensive for most.
And look: If you have the money to to join a pandemic pod, good for you! You are doing right by your kid, and if I had those resources, I’d do the same damn thing, judgement be damned. But also: F**k you (no offense). Where schools grade on a curve — and life is always graded on a curve — when we return to school in January or March or September 2021, the socioeconomically strapped kids will still have to compete with the pod kids. How is that fair? How is it fair that an eighth grader who has to sit in a car outside of a Panera Bread snaking the WiFi on their janky school-provided Chromebook doing a day’s worth of school work in an hour while Dad keeps asking, “Are you done yet?” has to compete against a kid who has an office and a desk and a Macbook and an in-person teacher to supplement the work of another remote teacher?
The situation is going to be even worse in the fall than the spring for a few reasons. First off, teachers were making it up as they went along in the spring, and the concern was less about teaching new topics and more about maintaining. It was about getting through the year, regrouping, and getting ready for the fall. Now that teachers will be trying to duplicate the learning experience remotely, those disparities will be accelerated. This is on top of the fact that in the fall, kids will be learning from new teachers with whom they are not familiar. Teachers in the spring could still exploit their existing relationships; that option won’t be available here.
Public school is by no means an equalizer. These problems exist with or without a pandemic, but when people write that remote learning is going to doom a generation of kids, this is what they mean. I have no f**king idea what the solution is, and as everyone has already noted many, many times, there are only bad answers here. But I’ll say this: When middle-class suburban families start demanding the schools reopen, I get really annoyed with how cavalier they are about a deathly virus. However, when low-income parents demand that schools reopen, I get it. If the pandemic had hit when I was in school in the circumstances from which I hailed, there’s a 50/50 chance that I never would have graduated high school. Thanks to a pandemic that our leaders could not control, the chances of success for socioeconomically disadvantaged kids has officially gone from slim to nada.