We have all been steeped in the vivid, traumatic consequences of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with regard to a year of disrupted learning for our kids. As educators, we have an obligation to reflect on this past year and take from it what lessons we can. Just as the president has advocated to “Build Back Better,” we in the education space need to find ways to apply what we’ve learned, and bring kids back into schools that are better than the ones they left last March.
The Pandemic Made Bad Things Worse
We know that there’s been a growing divide in our school systems. Student outcomes are often related to factors out of their control—Race, socioeconomic status, housing, mental health, experiences of trauma, disability or learning challenges. The pandemic exploded the already expanding achievement and opportunity gaps. Our reliance on technology for remote learning meant that students without the right devices, hooked up to reliable wifi, and without dedicated home spaces free from distraction were starting from a place of disadvantage.
We have seen that when we need to, we are able to marshal resources to connect schools and students, but we have to do better. We will also be working against a year-long learning gap for many students. Earlier this year, The Boston Globe found that a significant number of students have never logged on, and have disappeared from the virtual learning space.
School Buildings Are in Rough Shape
In my role with my local teachers association, I’ve learned more about HEPA filters of various MERV levels, air exchanges, aerosolized droplets, and ASHRAE Standards than I ever thought I would. What is clear from my experience is that a school systems’ physical plants matter. So many districts have old crumbling buildings with poor ventilation, inadequate space, retrofitted classrooms, and inaugural plaques in too many front lobbies from the 1960s or before.
In my district, I’m lucky that the school where I work was last refurbished in 2009. In terms of most public school districts, this qualifies as brand new. Building quality is another area where gaps exist between wealthier districts in the suburbs and large urban districts that struggle to maintain dinosaur structures well into the 21st Century. Part of any conversation about investments in infrastructure must include our public school buildings.
Schools Are More Than They Appear
When our schools closed last March, it gave space for many communities to realize just how central schools were to civic and social structures in our lives. Yes, schools are where students receive their formal education, but there is so much more to schools’ systemic importance.
Schools are places many students depend on to be able to eat breakfast and lunch. Schools organize many athletic teams, performing arts presentations, after-school clubs and activities, and so much more. Schools are very likely to be voting centers, and locations for civic organizations to gather in the evenings. Often, many town boards and committees use schools to hold their public meetings.
We also know that schools, most of whose staff are legally-mandated reporters, are where instances of child abuse and neglect are uncovered. School libraries are lifelines for many families to find a steady supply of high-quality books for children of all ages. Once we return to all schools full time, we need to hold onto our appreciation for schools as vital community hubs.
Remote Learning Has Broken Walls
Remote learning is not a replacement for in-person education, nor should it be. There are, however, applications for virtual entry into our schools and classrooms that do make sense. Before the pandemic, I remember one or two parent meetings in which one parent was present in a classroom, meeting with us teachers, specialists, and counselors, while their partner spoke to us through an iPhone placed in the center of the table. Afterward, we would remark at the awkwardness of how the meeting went, mostly because it was so far removed from our normal practice. Now, we all know Zoom.
The typical structure of parent meetings can serve to disadvantage some families, and further exacerbate the equity gap. Normally, we ask parents to take time in the middle of the workday to come into their child's school to meet. This format privileges those parents who are able to take time off easily, or don't have other responsibilities like a younger child at home.
We ask these parents to come into a classroom to sit in small, uncomfortable chairs at small desks. Often, as in the case of a special education meeting, there are sometimes 6-10 school staff present and, already seated, as parents walk in. The dynamic can be intimidating, unbalanced, and favor parents who have deep advocacy knowledge of how their school district operates. Although not perfect, this year’s experience illustrates that virtual parent meetings should be part of the discussion around equity and access in education going forward.
Schools Allow for Many Parents to Be in the Workforce
This may be a controversial point, and I want to be careful in how I phrase this: Schools are not babysitters, nor is that their role. Schools are dynamic institutions whose primary goal is to promote student achievement by means of an excellent education. Nevertheless, our students’ physical attendance in schools mean that their parents are able to participate in the workforce.
In a country where childcare costs are prohibitive to many families, remote learning presented a sharp tradeoff for parents. Some were able to work from home alongside their children, and very often these parents were already on the advantaged side of the equity gap. Other parents, like frontline workers, health professionals, cops, firefighters, and grocery workers, weren’t able to work remotely. Along with an increased risk of contracting COVID, these parents weren’t able to continuously monitor how home learning was going in the moment. Our schools play an important role in providing safe, structured, and positive environments for all students, and this allows parents to make a living to provide a safe home for them as well.
Stephen A. Guerriero is a sixth grade Social Studies teacher in Needham and is Vice President for Communications of the Needham Teachers Association. He also serves on the National Policy Advisory Board of
Teach Plus, an organization that promotes teacher voice in educational policy decisions at all levels.