The Inequity Between Students Isn’t New, COVID-19 Is Just Bringing It to Light

Mar 23, 2020 12:00:00 AM


During World War II, riding out the Blitz in his native London, theologian and fantasy author C. S. Lewis wrote, “The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.” The same is true for us today. 

If you are reading this, I would be willing to bet you have angst about distance learning. So many parents are worried about what their children are missing at school and feel unprepared to act as a surrogate teacher. But I am going to make a host of assumptions here when I write this grand proclamation: 

If you’re reading this, then your children’s education will be okay. To be clear, I’m talking about salaried middle-class families.

They might fall a little behind in a subject or two, especially if it is one in which you yourself feel a tad weak. But I am assuming that you—a reader who has the free time to click on a link to and read an article about education—are more than equipped to guide your children through these unprecedented days.

I am assuming that even if their teacher hasn’t set up all of the distance activities perfectly, you will advocate for your child and get things straightened out. I am assuming that if for some reason you can’t do so, you will figure out a way to teach the material yourself, from scratch.

Here is the hard truth. Your children are going to be just fine—because [pullquote]all around the country millions of students are sitting at home who, over the next few months, are going to fall behind.[/pullquote] They don't have the advantages your children do. Even if your child merely stands still, he or she will begin next year relatively ahead of these children. This is a terrible thing. It is, however, true.

Remember C. S. Lewis. The inequity we are going to see over the next few months was not created by COVID-19 and our need for quarantine. Rather, that inequity already existed; COVID-19 is merely going to bring it into the light. 

Our Kids Are Going To Be Fine

My wife and I woke up Monday morning and, like so many of you, fed our three elementary-age children breakfast before beginning our distance learning plan. We set up both laptops in the family room, moved the children through in shifts, had them practice piano during school time even. My wife’s office had been completely shut down (she is a pastor) as had the high school where I teach. We were home with our four college degrees, our lifelong love of learning and our children to direct. Except for the potty-training 2-year-old, it was a piece of cake—even when it wasn’t. 

Links were broken, logins forgotten. Emails and notifications poured in from their school, overwhelming us with conflicting information that we had to parse. The first grader didn’t have quite enough to do, the fifth grader a little too much. And, like Goldilocks, the third-grader felt just about right. All the while we had to borrow computers away from the children in order to address tasks from our own jobs that we couldn’t handle on our phones. But through all this, we finished a day’s worth of school before lunch. Our kids are going to be just fine. I’m willing to bet that yours will be too.

I'm Worried About My Students

In contrast, take the day I spent monitoring online classrooms for my 10th grade math students. I teach in a Title I school—education-euphemism for “poor”—and my students come into class at the beginning of the year for the most part already running several grade levels behind. Their parents by and large did not go to college; they do not work the kinds of jobs where their offices shut down and pay them decent salaries to work from home. I don’t know the data, but I’d be willing to bet that most of my students spent the day taking care of younger relatives as Mom and Dad went off to work—global pandemic or no.

Of my 131 students, nine did some sort of schoolwork that first day. In one case, the work was only an email asking for a login. Some of this dearth is about internet access, but not most; almost all of my students have phones with some Wi-Fi capabilities. My students are going to drift primarily because they don’t have adults looking over their shoulders at every task. Please don’t think that this is because these adults don’t care about the education of their children every bit as much as you care about the education of yours. It is because these adults have no choice but to leave the house and go to work.

If you’re reading this, your children are going to be just fine. Truth to tell, your children might be better off after a month at home with 100% attention from Mom or Dad. My students, though, already among the most vulnerable members of our suddenly oh-so-vulnerable society, the ones who don’t have an overly-educated parent at home sipping coffee and looking over their shoulder? [pullquote position="right"]My students will fall further behind. It is reality, and it is tragic.[/pullquote] 

Your children will be just fine. What we as a society are going to do about the rest of our children—that is the question we will have to answer before the start of the next school year. It is a question we should have answered long ago.

We owe it to my students. We owe it to children everywhere. 

Jay Wamsted

Jay Wamsted has taught math at Benjamin E. Mays High School in southwest Atlanta for fourteen years. His writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, including "Harvard Educational Review," "Mathematics Teacher" and "Sojourners." He can be found online at "The Southeast Review," "Under the Sun" and the "TEDx" YouTube channel, where you can watch his 2017 talk “Eating the Elephant: Ending Racism & the Magic of Trust.” He and his wife have four young children, and he rides his bicycle to and from work just about every day. You can contact him on Twitter @JayWamsted or by email,    

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