With distance learning, the digital divide has widened into a chasm, swallowing whole populations of students who are now off the educational grid. They’re unreachable because they have no Internet access, or not enough home devices, or nobody at home to help them with learning packets. The equity gap, exacerbated by COVID-19, will continue to grow as vulnerable students fall even further behind.
“We, as educators, as humans, have to step up,” said NEA Vice President Becky Pringle during the Educator Voice Academy, a three-hour virtual meeting of 100 educators, including teachers, education support professionals, organizers and NEA state affiliate staff held April 18, 2020. “A bright light is shining on the vast and deep inequities in this country and the work of the Educator Voice Academy is absolutely essential.”
Like dominoes, schools closed one after another, giving educators little time to prepare for how they’d continue instruction. For those in more resourced districts, distance learning was relatively easy to implement. Most students had their own devices and easy access to the internet at home. But in low-income communities and rural communities across the country, access is harder to come by and many students have had to rely on schools or libraries to get online and now have no options.
“As we converted to digital instruction other problems popped out right away,” said Pringle. “Some of our districts seemed to move away from their commitment to students with special needs, so we need to figure out how to work with our partners and demand that students with disabilities have what they need even as we struggle with what that could look like in a digital environment.”
Another problem of school closure is hunger. Low-income students rely on breakfast and lunch programs as their only sources of nutrition.
“We all know, if our students are hungry they can’t learn,” said Pringle. “Our educators are stepping up to address this with grab and go sites and bus delivery of meals, but we’ve had ESPs who have lost their lives doing this vital work. We have to figure out how we feed these students while keeping our educators safe.”
There are no clear answers yet, which is frustrating and stressful for everyone in education, but the Educator Voice Academy (EVA) is designed to capture the many questions, challenges, and voices of educators to help chart the path ahead as districts make decisions. Pringle and the other presenters from the EVA who spoke about equity in distance learning, special education, and meals and nutrition, agreed that when the right questions are raised, it becomes easier to narrow in on the best solutions. For example:
- How do we leverage E-Rate to broaden internet access?
- How can we advocate for PPE and other safety measures for ESPs providing meals?
- How can we help students who don’t have access to translation of assignments, or are afraid to provide log-in information for distance learning because of immigration status?
- How do we address social and emotional needs of students, especially vulnerable populations?
- What do we do about grading and make sure the system is equitable while ensuring students more along in their learning?
- How do we address the remedial learning that will need to take place in 2020-2021?Can we get waivers on testing for next academic year?
- How do we deliver therapies to special education students?
- How do we frame this as an opportunity for legislation that will close the equity gap?
“We can frame this as an opportunity. We won’t sit back, we will be proactive,” said said Hanna Vaandering, an elementary physical education teacher from Oregon and member of the NEA Executive Committee who presented at the EVA. “Parents everywhere have seen a glimpse of what providing instruction is like and have more understanding of the impact we have on their children. We now have a moment to speak up about the importance of public education. Right now we need to lift up our educator voices like never before.”