Two facts about public education in Arkansas are obvious at this stage of the pandemic:
One, a return to in-person learning, for the rest of 2020 and possibly the first half of 2021, is all but delusional. We are far from meeting the minimum health standards necessary to reopen schools safely, and we’re wasting time and resources pretending otherwise.
And two, online learning has massive equity and quality gaps, while putting enormous strains on parents and students. Those with computers, internet access, tech literacy and caregiver support get by — and those missing any one of those things or with special needs get left farther behind.
Our state and federal governments have had one job since March — contain the pandemic to keep people safe. They failed. We have the worst pandemic outbreak in any developed nation.
The Arkansas Department of Education had one job since March — get ready to restart school safely and effectively. They failed. They delegated decisions to local districts without the expertise or resources to support them. They didn’t consider the adequacy and equity impacts of the pandemic or make the needed investments. Educators across the state are doing their heroic best to make it work, but that’s not going to be sufficient for the vast majority of our kids.
So here we are, weeks from the scheduled start of school, in a failed state of education. What do we do now?
Among the least bad choices is the concept of a learning pod. A few families with similar-aged children agree to socially isolate together and share the work of caring for the kids and supporting their education. Parents take turns, or they hire a tutor or teacher. The kids get the added benefit of interaction with other kids, and parents get to focus on their jobs that put food on the table.
For my family, this is absolutely the right decision. But I’m deeply concerned about the enormous equity problems private learning pods can create.
Not everyone can afford a tutor or even daycare. Families are likely to link up along existing relationships, leaving our kids even more segregated by race, income and ability. Some families are already so overstretched that adding one single new pressure is just not feasible. And local schools lose resources they need more than ever if parents opt out of their public school’s distance learning for charter, private or homeschooling.
The education and development of many kids, especially our most vulnerable, can easily fall through the cracks.
Arkansas has a long history of wealthier and white families fleeing public schools to segregate and take care of their kids while neglecting others. This could make it much worse. Arkansas was backsliding from quality and equitable public schools before the pandemic, reversing years of unfinished progress since the landmark Lake View Supreme Court ruling. Governor Hutchinson and the legislature now allow districts to waive academic standards, and they give taxpayer funding to ineffective, inefficient and segregationist private and charter schools. They widened the disparities between the haves and the have-nots. Gaps in teacher pay between wealthy and low-income districts are wider today than when the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional. And don’t get me started on the state taking over the Little Rock School District and undermining it at every turn.
Now the coronavirus crisis is ballooning those gaps to unprecedented levels. We have to keep equity centered in our advocacy and actions as we take care of our kids. What might that look like? To be honest, I don’t know. The ideal scenario would be for school districts themselves to enact pods, putting students in groups of six to eight with one teacher. That seems unlikely as the state is simply not providing those kinds of resources to schools. The state should be putting whatever resources are necessary to maintain an adequate and equitable education system, but it shows little appetite for that.
At a minimum, parents forming pods should stay enrolled in their district’s distance learning so their schools don’t lose funding.
We need imaginative and equitable solutions to make sure the physical and emotional needs of all students are met and reduce the strain on families while we ride out the pandemic. We need to create a strong recovery plan, and the funding to back it, to help kids catch up when this is over.
We are not used to living in a failed state. For all our challenges, Arkansas historically has been able to work together in a nonpartisan way to accomplish important stuff. Those days seem gone as our leaders fail a whole generation of youth. I hope we carry our disappointment and anger into sustained voting and advocacy.
For now, we have to do what others in failed states do — turn to community self-help. Let’s make sure that ALL of our students and families are safe and thriving, and not just the ones in our bubbles and pods. And let’s commit to equity for the long recovery ahead.