Let's Focus on Our Students' Health and Humanity, Not on 'Getting Back to Normal'

Jul 9, 2020 12:08:00 PM


Jessica N. EwaltJessica N. Ewalt, Ph.D., is an educator in the Gwinnett County Public School system. Her research focuses on the implications of critical race theory in high school social studies classrooms.

Matthew J MoultonMatthew J. Moulton, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of education at Indiana State University. His research focuses on middle grades education and equity issues in schools with a specific focus on young adolescents experiencing homelessness.

Jesús A TiradoJesús A. Tirado, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of secondary social studies at Auburn University. His research focuses on the tensions that come with competing visions of belonging in the curriculum and classroom.

I almost forgot we were stuck at home. My daughter’s pre-K class was on a field trip to the zoo through a Zoom meeting and I could hear kids oohing and awing at different animals. They were asking questions about the animals’ stripes and spots, eating habits, how some animals use the bathroom—and they even asked their teacher if they could use the bathroom. 

If I had closed my eyes, I would have believed we were all at the zoo. But my eyes were open. And the animals were on a screen as I watched my daughter virtually interact with her classmates. 

Then I noticed that her normally diverse class was poorly represented in this space. The few students of color who Zoomed into the field trip struggled with the digital medium more than anything else. [pullquote]I recognized that I was not just watching a virtual field trip, I was witnessing the implications of the digital divide in my daughter’s e-classroom.[/pullquote]

The Digital Divide

Our anxiety comes from many sources these days⏤there is a global pandemic and nation-wide protests going on after all. From our vantage point as educators and people who work with educators, there was a lot of good this spring as teachers and students did their best in a historic situation. Teachers and students tried to regroup and meet each other in the online world. However, there stood a significant problem: the digital divide

Students were forced to take classes online while having unstable access to the internet or sharing devices with several others. Some students, especially those in high school, took on additional responsibilities in their families, such as caring for younger siblings or working to help with household finances.

Students without a digitally literate family member were sometimes left to navigate the world of online education alone, or they became the intermediary for their families as they, too, made the jumps to the digital workplace. This move magnified the struggles that students were already facing in education, as they were learning to be digitally literate along with everything else they were tasked to take on during this pandemic.

Many people in education found themselves being teleported or “Zoom”ed into their students’ homes. The daily expectations of teachers continued to include lesson planning, providing feedback and ensuring students were supported appropriately. These expectations became messy as lessons shifted from synchronous to asynchronous, support for diverse learners and their needs shifted to an online platform, and the connections between individuals, such as discussions and immediate feedback, were almost completely lost. Teachers attempted to host virtual lessons, office hours, and regularly call and email parents and students in search of the connection they’d lost with the closing of schools. However, [pillquote position="right"]these attempts for connection and socialization did not yield the same results as the classroom.[/pullquote]

The lack of success in creating connectivity between teachers and students exposed larger inequalities public education has yet to address. Racial and class disparities, often referred to as achievement, belief or opportunity “gaps,” have widened with the transition to online education. Low-income students, who are often racial minorities, have faced—and continue to face—additional challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Struggle to Stay Connected

The possibility of e-learning and the digital classroom had all of us hunting for resources to help our students. But at the root of this search wasn’t a quest for the most quixotic collection of technologies and platforms, it was a search for the connection that we used to have in our classroom.

Searching for and trying different platforms only exacerbated the problems of the digital divide as our roaming e-classroom also asked students to become more digitally literate as they were working to learn and manage obstacles. We were setting our students on quests to find us without a map or means to our e-classrooms⏤instead of helping others understand that class size, the problems of poverty, and even the damaging effects of high stakes accountability were keeping us disconnected from our students as we went on our own quest to reform what we had in virtual spaces instead of putting our relationships at the center. 

[pullquote position="right"]Throughout the transition from in-person to online, remote learning made it abundantly necessary to reach out and check on our students to make sure their personal needs were being met.[/pullquote] Some students were eager to share about the basement they made into a learning space and the new time they had with their families. Other students vulnerably expressed their discomfort with the current situation because they missed their friends and their classrooms. Students shared stories about how they were worried about family members or were facing economic and mental hardships due to the pandemic and sometimes several of these pressures were weighing on them at once. 

Yet schools continued to demand students focus on academics and push to finish the school year, with some continuing to pressure grades and high-stakes learning. Regardless, our students displayed resilience, while still juggling the responsibilities of being a human being in a time of pandemic. 

Some schools made strides to alleviate the hardships faced by students during this challenging time. We regularly head stories about schools providing food and organizing drive-by parades to physically and emotionally support students. Some schools and districts have established policies to mitigate the impact of the digital divide by providing access to devices and Wi-Fi hotspots. But these policies were not reaching all communities. Some students and families are still struggling to make ends met and the unemployment numbers continue to rise. 

Our students are facing all manner of hardships and, as a society, [pullquote]we need to consider how the COVID-19 Pandemic has created an argument for the necessity of digital access and literacy in all communities[/pullquote] as a place to begin these conversations. But connectivity and connection are not the same. Truly connecting with our students is grounded in building and maintaining relationships. So, instead of a drive to normalcy as schools consider plans for reopening, let us place our students’ health and humanity at the forefront of our concerns. That starts with helping our students get what they need.

Jessica N. Ewalt

Jessica N. Ewalt, Ph.D., is an educator in the Gwinnett County Public School system. Her research focuses on the implications of critical race theory in high school social studies classrooms.

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