If education is supposed to be the great equalizer, what is to become of it when wealthy corporations exploit the coronavirus for profit potential?
Two months ago, American students were halfway through their third of four traditional marking periods characterizing the American school system. They were looking forward to the end of March, a month without any respite for many school districts, the end of winter, ahead to April and spring break.
Then on March 13 (Friday the 13th), they were told they would not be returning for a month: the coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease that manifests from it were forcing state governments to shut down non-essential businesses, schools, and large congregations.
Then that month ate into their anticipated break.
One month was becoming two.
People wondered when things were going to get back to “normal.”
How long were parents expected to hold down jobs (if they still had them) and serve as their children’s teachers’ unofficial one-on-one aides?
How long would middle-and high school-age students serve as surrogates for younger siblings while their essential worker parents each day risked their lives venturing out into the petri dish that became the United States?
Those school districts that had been preparing for this initiated contingency plans involving teachers delivering lessons, learning materials, and remote meetings via Zoom and Google Meet.
Students with district-issued laptops, like Google Chromebooks, already familiar with interactive electronic resources, were prepared to temporarily eschew their classrooms and face-to-face instruction.
There are those students who have essentially “disappeared” from school all together.
As the United States continues fumbling with the Trump administration’s woefully amateurish response to the virus for which it had ample warning and intelligence, the question should not be “When will we re-open?” but what long-term impact is this academic blackout going to have on America’s almost 60 million students, and, ultimately, our national future?
Some educators and researchers are already painting an ambivalent picture.
Teach companies’ educational encroachment was, of course, happening before the pandemic. Now that the pandemic has provided no other alternative but fealty to those companies, they are riding in like knights in shining armor helping to forge a wider gulf between the economic class.
New York educator Tom McMahon explained:
“Coronavirus has unmasked something teachers across the world have known for years: Education is about the haves and have nots. Being thrust into a virtual learning model is much easier for students and teachers that have access to technology at school and at home, while it is nearly impossible for those without. The divide between these groups of students has never been more apparent and is something our country must address. Our children deserve a top quality public education regardless of their zip code.”
New York has the highest confirmed cases of the coronavirus/COVID-19 in the world. This has motivated NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo to recently invote former Google CEO and Schmidt Futures Executive Chairman and founder, Eric Schmidt, to lead the state’s 15-member Blue Ribbon Commission to help improve telehealth and broadband access.
But Schmidt is not the first wealthy tech guru to whom Cuomo has made overtures.
“[The pandemic has created] a moment in history when we can actually incorporate and advance [Gates’s] ideas…all these buildings, all these physical classrooms — why with all the technology you have?”
His point is not subtle: With all this technology, why have schools at all? Why have so many teachers? After all, machines are easier to deal with.
“There has been a distinct warming up to human-less, contactless technology. Humans are biohazards, machines are not.”
We expect this from a tech CEO.
Educator Adam Lewis has a different perspective, though:
“The importance of face to face learning during this period of physical distance has been made evident to students, parents, and teachers. It is impossible to recreate the authenticity and interaction of a classroom discussion in a Google Meet.”
“On a personal level, I found myself empathizing with my wife as she tried to teach studio art via a Chromebook to an audience of students without art supplies.”
According to a recent Economic Policy Institute study:
“One in four eighth-graders who are poor do not have a desktop computer or laptop (23.7%), and almost one in three (29.4%) do not have a tablet—which are essential if students are to be able to follow instruction online. Indeed, 7.0% of eighth-graders who are poor do not have home internet, the other essential instrument for remote study. In contrast, only 7.7% of non- poor students lack a desktop or laptop computer, and only a tiny fraction of non-poor students (1.6%) are without internet access. (It’s important to note that the survey questions do not ask about the quality or coverage of the internet access, or the number of computers in the house. Devices once available for homework may now be shared with siblings or be used by parents for work.) In sum, for eighth-graders overall, the data show broad but uneven access to the internet, and also demonstrate that a sizeable minority, 15.6%, don’t have the essential hardware they need to learn online.”
With increased internet access and activity come inevitable privacy issues.
This is already a concern in the healthcare industry forced to embrace the “telehealth” revolution.
Surveillance (something with which Google is all too familiar) is another concern.
Eric Schmidt stated in a video call with the Economic Club of New York last month that what was happening is a “grand experiment in remote learning.”
“So, all the parents out there who are listening or watching, you’ve been struggling with supporting your kids on Google Classroom and Zoom calls, and you thought you were just trying to get through the day. Well, according to Google, you’ve been engaged in a ‘grand experiment in remote learning,’ where they are getting a great deal of data and figuring out how to do this permanently, because they actually believe this is a better way of educating kids, or at least, and coming back to our earlier conversation, a more profitable way.”
Host Juan Gonzalez, added:
“Whether it’s a professor’s lecture or whether it’s the interview between a doctor and a patient, that is no longer a private situation. It’s now recorded and saved, to possible detriment of both the professor’s right as a teacher or the patient’s right in their private discussions with their doctors.”
Sharing his experience as a Rutgers University instructor, Gonzalez explained:
“My students at Rutgers did a survey of their fellow students on this issue of remote learning. They did a survey of several hundred students. Eighty-five percent of them said that their ability to concentrate on subject matter had been seriously reduced since the move to remote learning, and 65% of them said that their homes were not conducive to remote learning. So, no one is taking into account the impact on the actual quality of the kind of education that students are receiving.”
And with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the charter-school billionaire who helped destroy Michigan schools before Donald Trump named her to his cabinet, and the recent Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that carves out deregulatory loopholes for online charter school corporations, it appears as though, coronavirus or no coronavirus, our students are just going to have to get used to being guinea pigs in the “grand experiment.”
But the internet is not the only obstacle.
For millions of students—particularly those in low-income areas with more austere school budgets–school is the only place they can expect to receive meals and the structure they need to provide stability in their lives.
Jessica Shelly, director of student dining services for Cincinnati, Ohio Public Schools, explained:
“I’m stuck with having to tell my scholars, my families and my community that we can’t be there for them.”
Barbara Harral supervises summer food services for Montgomery County, Md. Schools. She said:
“We’re kind of in a holding pattern waiting for guidance from USDA on how this will play out.”
Amid damages crises cause, history has taught us they also provide opportunities for improvement.
Think about the way the New Deal rebuilt America after the Republican Great Depression of 1929.
One area due for change is the way we assess students through standardized examinations.
Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-founder of the think tank Populace, Todd Rose, explained:
“If we can focus mastery much more on actual learning than what kids score on some tests, it allows us to start trusting our teachers more in a way we want to and need to.”
Colleges all over the country have also had to adjust their admission requirements and tuition, which could usher in a necessary change to the cost of higher education. At a time when calls for tuition-free college are the most vociferous they have ever been, this could be the moment higher-learning institutions concede to lowering tuition to boost dwindling enrollment.
In addition, education’s glaring, malingering inequities—like broadband access–could finally be addressed.
Teach For America CEO, Elisa Villanueva-Beard, asks:
“Do children have hot spots? Do they have access to devices? That’s now like asking if kids have backpacks and paper and pencils. It’s essential.”
Educator Adam Lewis added:
“If anything, this virus has exposed serious inequalities in education that will hopefully be remedied in a post-corona education system. We can more clearly see the attention that needs to be paid to our impoverished students and our special needs population.”
Improvements to schools are long overdue.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a quarter of all public schools were built between 1950 and 1969.
Many haven’t received the upgrades needed to accommodate demographic and technological changes.
Educator Tom McMahon commented:
“For decades, teachers and teachers’ unions have fought for safe and clean working conditions because a teacher’s working conditions are a student’s learning conditions. Coronavirus has brought those discussions to the forefront. Schools must find a way to ensure student and staff safety before reopening in the fall. This is difficult given the number of students that move in and out of a given classroom each day.”
Coincidentally, Teacher Appreciation Week fell around the time most school district that hadn’t already closed for the year finally gave up hope of re-opening, and if there’s one thing this crisis has produced is an overwhelming appreciation for teachers. The technology may not be going away, but we now see more than ever how indispensable in-person instruction has always been.
Tom McMahon explained:
“The number one thing Coronavirus has taught us is that nothing replaces a child’s time in a classroom with their teacher. Both students and teachers have made the best of this unique situation, but it is not the same and as hard as everyone works, there will be needs that simply can’t be met.”
New York State United Teachers president, Andy Pallotta, concluded:
“If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown.”