Ajaniya Blackeney is a 14-year-old African-American freshman attending Crossland High School in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Approximately 62 percent of students at her school are eligible for free and reduced price lunch, and approximately 99 percent of the students are racial minorities. Ajaniya is just one of the many, many K–12 students nationwide affected by school closures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. I asked Ajaniya about her school being closed, and she informed me that students were given instructional packets, and she was also given a school project where she needed to purchase materials for the assignment.
When Ajaniya told me she needed to purchase supplies, I immediately thought about the educational inequities that are likely being exacerbated by COVID-19, particularly for students whose parents or guardians may not be able to afford extra school supplies. For example, under normal circumstances, going to Staples may not be a financial constraint; however, in the context of COVID-19, where nearly 300,000 Americans and counting are filing for unemployment benefits, affordability of supplies may not be as feasible due to parents being out of work; and the logistics of going to stores while safely practicing social distancing poses challenges.
It is insufficient to have current discussions on school closures without underscoring the intersections of race, poverty, residential segregation, and accessibility to social services. Schools have now become more than just places of learning.
The informal conversation I had with Ajaniya contributes to a broader discussion of equity and fairness during school closures. With the demographic shifts of black and Latino students being disproportionately enrolled in America’s public schools, it is insufficient to have current discussions on school closures without underscoring the intersections of race, poverty, residential segregation, and accessibility to social services. Schools have now become more than just places of learning. They are community centers, sources of food security, and, for some families, laundromats. Many Americans rely on them providing these supports and resources, and they need to be able to continue doing so.
As school districts and local leaders strategize best practices in response to school closures, here are four creative recommendations worth considering.
Provide nutritious meals at varied sites in the community.
For students who are eligible for free and reduced price meals, schools may be their only places to obtain food. In the federal government’s response to the pandemic, the stimulus package would provide more than $1 billion for federal nutrition assistance, including lunch meals for low-income students. Municipalities are also mobilizing aid: cities such as the Los Angeles Unified School District opened sixty Grab and Go food centers for students and families to pick up meals, and Washington, D.C. has comprehensive meal sites where anyone under 18 can receive a meal. A more exemplary kind of plan is being modeled in rural areas, such as the one being implemented by Roscommon Public Schools in Michigan, where school buses are being turned into food trucks that deliver breakfast and lunch meals to students. The meal preparations are successful due to community efforts and school staff buy-in. This is an excellent model because some students are caring for younger siblings and cannot leave their homes to pick up meals.
Children from low-income families should not have to worry about receiving breakfast, lunch, or dinner. For communities of color and the economically disadvantaged, relying on non-institutional solidarity and the leveraging of community resources is sometimes the only choice. During this pandemic, community activism is needed more than ever. But government has a responsibility to these communities as well, and can supplement their valiant efforts.
Provide child care options for parents who cannot work from home.
Being able to work from home is a privilege. Parents who are medical, food service, and sanitation workers, to name just a few occupation types, may not have not this option, and must abruptly reconsider child care services when schools are closed. When evaluating which of their services will continue, school districts should have plans in place for child care. States like Vermont are developing child care plans that would include, in addition to children of staff and providers of child care and education services, those who are kitchen or custodial staff. No parent of any occupation should have to choose between going to work and leaving their child(ren) home alone, or staying home and risking losing their job.
Such interventions are unlikely to be enough, however. Other forms of related support must be amplified as well, with paid time off from work perhaps being chief among them. I interviewed Dara Jefferson, an African-American teacher at a Title I school in Florida and a mother, to learn about her situation. She commented that this pandemic is exposing the privilege of the traditional Western family structure and gender dynamic, in which the father goes to work and the mother stays home. These norms no longer make up the majority of cases in this country: in 63 percent of American families, all parents are working. Single-parent households and families where both parents are employed face obstacles in deciding on child care. Currently, communal child care facilities are potentially dangerous for caregivers, children, and their families. Parents with young children of special needs may face additional challenges. The most feasible solution is paid medical and family leave so that parents will still receive income while caring for their children.
Use diverse approaches to narrow the “homework gap.”
The homework gap refers to school-age children not having internet connectivity to complete schoolwork, and is most pronounced among black, Hispanic, and lower-income students. Approximately 12 million children live in homes without internet access, according to Democratic staff of the Joint Economic Committee, a fact which impedes students’ ability to complete coursework even in the best of circumstances. As school districts adapt to online learning, there are federal, state, and local approaches to increase the accessibility and connectivity for marginalized students.
At the federal level, the congressional stimulus package proposes $1 billion for the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) Lifeline Subsidy program to help low-income families. Education organizations are requesting that the FCC expand home-internet access, particularly for the students most in need. Schools districts such as Los Angeles Unified have been effective in meeting this need by working through partnerships with television networks, such as PBS. The network provides dual language lesson plans and assignments. In Charleston County, South Carolina, school buses are being repurposed and equipped with wi-fi hotspots across the district to help students with remote learning. In New York City, a charter network uses a strategy of “Keeping it Simple” by making lesson plans accessible to students on smartphones, so that a laptop is not required.
Findings from a national survey also found that of the districts surveyed, only one-third are working to deliver laptops or tablets in response to the crisis. Raven Wilhelm, an Afro-Latina teacher at a specialized high school (which only admits students with top scores on a standardized test) in the Bronx, and the only teacher of color in her department, comments that she has mixed feelings about her students being required to do coursework on computers at home, because she is concerned that not all students will have access to laptops. Currently, laptops are being distributed to the students most in need in New York City, but some students may receive them sooner than others.
If accessible, use home school resources that are anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and culturally responsive.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has further exposed the xenophobia and racism that plagues American society, particularly against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Some Asian-American students have been bullied, and some have suffered brutal physical attacks COVID-19-related scapegoating. This is the ideal time to teach students that hate has no place in your home. A collection of anti-oppressive, anti-racist homeschool curriculum ideas and resources has been developed by various education stakeholders for families impacted by closures. If they’re made accessible, these types of resources can affirm all students’ cultures in curricula and help to provide racial healing in a climate of trauma and fear.
This is the ideal time to teach students that hate has no place in your home.
COVID-19 is undoubtedly a crisis that is devastating the lives of people across all races, economic classes, and nationalities. For marginalized, homeless, and abused students, school closures are a loss of meals, a safe environment, and necessary social services. In a time of social isolation, let us unify in advocating for the marginalized students whose schools are used for much more than learning. Their survival is dependent on our actions; and their school’s commitment to inclusivity is now being put to a test. Our shared humanity is a call for education equity.
header photo: A student carries home bagged meals given out as part of Stamford Public Schools’ “Grab and Go Meals for Kids” program, which is part of the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in Stamford, Connecticut. Source: John Moore/Getty Images