COVID-19: How to return to school in the midst of the pandemic?

Experts assure that the most vulnerable students must be cared for before implementing formulas that increase the digital divide. School districts are being forced to reopen without any guidance from the federal government.
Photo Credit: Unsplash

Jenny Manrique
Ethnic Media Services

In East Orosi, a community of about 200 families in the Central Valley of California, children have been thinking for 10 years that water comes naturally from a bottle. There they depend on the distribution of the precious bottled liquid for bathing, cooking and other cleaning uses. They do not know what drinking water is from a tap (even if they pay for the service), much less what broadband internet access is.

These brutal inequities are the main challenge when thinking of a safe and equal model to return to school this semester, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Eddie Valero, supervisor of District 4 of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors in California, which covers East Orosi, it is impossible to think about distance learning with equity if you don’t start by looking at what communities, mostly Latino and traditionally neglected, need.

“We must model our classes with the most struggling students as a priority in these poor and underserved neighborhoods. And from there, look up to those who have the most access,” said Valero, who spoke at a press conference organized via zoom by Ethnic Media Services.

The supervisor said that in the communities he serves there are no community centers where children can go to study, and that many already had learning deficiencies before the pandemic. In these places, access to smartphones, computers, or private tutors is a mere illusion. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are 11 million children in the country who do not have access to laptops or the internet at home.

“We must continue to pressure our legislators at both the state and federal levels on ways to rectify our mistakes… We need to reimagine what the schools of the future will be like.”

Valero is optimistic about two bills currently in the Senate and Assembly in California that could have a massive impact on equitable access to technology, one of the main pillars of distance education.

One is Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry’s AB-570, which would authorize schools to ask the Department of Education for the necessary computing devices and Internet connectivity suitable for home learning, prioritizing the poorest neighborhoods.

The other is Senator Lena González’s SB1130, which seeks to have the Public Services Commission approve funds for infrastructure projects that allow all households considered to be “high poverty” no later than December 2024 Wide at speeds of a minimum of 25 megabytes per second.

The Cutler-Orosi School District – also in the Valero jurisdiction – began by distributing Chromebooks and iPads to all students from kindergarten through 12th grade. And it is the intention of the Supervisor to involve county libraries and the Department of Parks and Recreation,” in the search for solutions to use our libraries and parks more effectively in times of social distancing.”

Districts forced to improvise

And it is that the problems of the so-called digital divide were aggravated by the pandemic. Most schools were not prepared to give a real guide to teachers on how to use technology or effective forms of instruction for children to study from home. That’s not counting homeless children, those with learning disabilities or those who live in crowded homes where there is no space to study or concentrate.

Although in those situations, parents would like children to return to their traditional educational space, “we are asking districts to reopen (schools) without any guidance or security for staff,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California (USC).

“The teacher unions have announced that they will go on strike if they are forced to work in unsafe conditions … given the lack of federal and state leadership, the districts are improvising on their own how to return to school,” said Noguera, who recalled that In countries like Israel, the early opening of schools has caused the virus to resurface.

“We have to put pressure on technology giants like Facebook and Amazon, which have accumulated huge profits during the pandemic … they have a moral responsibility to assist technologically disadvantaged families,” added Noguera.

Three models have been discussed in the United States those back to school: online teaching in its entirety; a hybrid model that allows a percentage of the school population to be brought to the classroom at a safe distance of 6 feet some days of the week, while the rest remain at home; and the return to school without any additional protocol, that is to say as it was done before the pandemic.

“At the beginning of this process (March-April) there were many states in the south of the country, such as Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arizona, Texas, that wanted to do things normally without social distancing or masks,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the Association of Superintendents of Schools (AASA).

“But infection rates have dramatically changed their stance … We’ve strongly pushed for guidelines from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), but the (Donald Trump) administration believes these principles are contrary to their goal which is to open the economy,” added Domenech.

AASA has calculated how much it would cost the country to partially reopen schools with sanitation protocols in school spaces, special protection equipment (PPE) for teachers and staff, and bus routes that allow minimizing the number of children in the vehicles. He concluded that this cost is $ 490 per student, which is why he is asking Congress to approve a budget of $ 200 billion.

 “The solution is for the federal government to put the money in, but since it’s going into recession in the summer now, it’s impossible to know when those funds will be available,” said Domenech. Only a bill pushed by Democrats in the Senate contemplates a figure close to the AASA proposal: $ 175 billion for the reopening of schools. Meanwhile the Republican proposal is $ 70 billion, and the education budget included in Heroes ACT (the proposed stimulus package to alleviate the pandemic) is only $ 58 billion.

Racial inequality

And although the issue of funds is controversial, other aspects have been completely invisible in the reopening plans for schools. Shaun R. Harper, executive director of the Center for Race and Equity at the University of Southern California (USC), said that of all the plans he has evaluated in school districts across the country, none of them address the issue of racial inequities.

“The pandemic has been devastating for communities of color, and these plans will do nothing but deepen those inequities,” said Harper.

The expert proposed five lines to consider for back to school: ensure emotional well-being resources to help students and employees who have lost family members due to the virus; protect workers of color who go to schools daily to serve food, care for the lawn and clean up, with personal protective equipment and access to COVID testing; provide reliable internet in the homes of students of color; protect Asian students who have been targeted for hate incidents by the White House-driven idea that COVID-19 is a “Chinese virus”; and finally, include communities of color in decision-making on these reopening models.

“This is an opportunity for philanthropists who are asking what they can do: Help bridge the inequality gap,” he concluded.