The crosshairs of today’s public education system: Remote learning and systemic racism
A look into how the global pandemic combined with our political government is reshaping American education.
On March 12th, I officially began working from home, as did many Americans. The following day, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year old Black woman, was shot and killed while she slept when Louisville police ransacked and fired through her home. The week after, my teenage brother started remote learning when New York City public schools closed. While Breonna Taylor’s murder made local news, the rest of the nation carried on as the primary focus at the time was this new, remote learning. One county and city at a time, public schools shut down as the United States joined a national quarantine.
What started as a temporary adjustment, developed into a tiring effort to fulfill my employee responsibilities while providing support for my brother’s high school education. As his big sister, I helped him out where I could with classwork and homework while our parents continued to go into work each day. Though I am not a teacher nor parent, I was beginning to assume the role of what felt like a part-time homeschool teacher.
Today, this role has become a reality for millions of parents throughout the country while students are continuously met with new challenges to receive the proper education they are entitled to.
Some key issues that have been heightened as a result of remote learning are: lack of individualized attention, shortage of educational resources and access to textbooks, laptops, tutoring, IEP support (Individual Education Plan) and IT support.
An increased demand for teacher-attention and educational resources are disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.
Lower and middle class families often have working parent(s) that aren’t capable of providing on-call support for their children, and/or unemployed parents are struggling to make ends meet and cannot always afford luxuries like WiFi, let alone a laptop. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center indicates that more than 18 million households lack broadband simply because it’s too expensive.
As reported by Alec MacGillis in a co-published piece by The New Yorker and ProPublica, “The Students Left Behind By Remote Learning,” the biggest challenges are usually not technological. Shemar, a bright fifth-grader from East Baltimore, is just one student who struggles to stay accounted for by his family and teachers during his remote learning experience. Too often, students and their education are not prioritized or neglected despite efforts by public education officials. MacGillis, writer and tutor to Shemar, personally checked in on him a few times and dropped off a laptop provided by their local church, but admits he too was consumed by his own kids’ remote education. As many students may not have tutors, mentors or other educational relationships, it’s easy for children to go unnoticed when (virtual) classrooms are overcrowded with students. MacGillis attests:
Society’s attention to them has always been spotty, but they had at least been visible — one saw them on the way to school, in their blue or burgundy uniforms, or in the park and the playground afterward. Now they were behind closed doors, and so were we, with full license to turn inward. While we dutifully stayed home to flatten the curve, children like Shemar were invisible.
Children who already have a hard time focusing on one subject or task at a time are already at-risk for falling behind. Now, putting them behind a screen only increases the chances of them struggling to catch up — with less support.
While many students may have entered summer vacation (mentally) early this past spring, they were also met with a reignited civil rights movement after George Floyd, a 46-year old Black man, was choked and murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25th.
That same day in New York, another Black man, Christian Cooper, was met with racism while bird-watching in Central Park. Amy Cooper, a white woman, verbally threatened to call the police after Christian Cooper asked her to place a leash on her dog. She specifically said she would let them know a Black man was threatening her and her dog — knowing that his race could be an issue, or be seen as dangerous if he’s confronted by law enforcement.
Americans protested, both peacefully and non-peacefully, throughout the summer, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Meanwhile, back on Google meets, Zoom calls, and Microsoft teams, teachers couldn’t avoid addressing what was happening in all of our cities. Many used this as an opportunity to teach about our First Amendment rights, but also to foster dialogues on social injustices.
Like many teenagers who retrieve their news from social media, my brother also began sharing and asking questions about the videos he was watching online. He shared one assignment with me, where he was asked to watch a video published by Trevor Noah. In a social media posting, Noah talked about the “domino effect” on the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, countless Black men and women, the protests, and riots brought on by racial injustices and police brutality. He introduces the concept of a “social contract,” and how it has been broken between America and Black America.
“If you felt uneasy watching that Target being looted, try to imagine how it must feel for Black Americans when they watch themselves being looted every single day. Police in America are looting Black bodies."
Educators are re-evaluating their curriculum
Noah’s monologue connects the dots on systemic racism and the struggles and effects of discrimination against African-Americans in the United States. Now, my brother’s homework assignment was asking him to explain whether he believes the national riots and looting are justified given the centuries of racial inequality and exploitation.
The main takeaways? Educators are finally asking two essential questions:
How can we listen to and support Black students, teachers and communities who have been systemically silenced for too long?
How can we acknowledge and teach the injustices that Black Americans are facing and integrate it into our curriculum? (Which is already heavily focused on one narrative of American history — the white narrative)
In “All Students Need Anti-Racism Education,” 8th grade teacher, Christina Torres, explains why white students from privileged communities must learn about the injustices Black communities face, and why it’s important to begin teaching about it from the systemic level itself — the education sector.
It’s not just BIPOC who need to see themselves in the literature or history they study. White students need to hear those perspectives as well, just as straight and cisgender students need to read LGBTQ+ stories.
This notion reinforces why supporting and allowing students from historically disenfranchised communities to feel seen, heard and included, is critical. Representation in curriculum is just as fundamental as student representation in the classroom. Torres encourages leaders in education to move beyond the two above posed questions, and ask themselves:
If you don’t have any Black students, why is that? If your school primarily serves folks with high socioeconomic status, what policies and events led to that? Schools need to consider how they can help create more integration in their community by having open and honest discussions with their parents and caregivers about the benefits of diverse schools (including for white students) or questioning policies (such as requirements regarding tardiness and truancy and dress codes) that have made it historically difficult for more diverse populations to join their school community.
To begin to support these areas, departmental officials must seek new educational resources that deviate from traditional text books which often teach outdated or narrow ways of thinking critically. As educational standards vary from state to state, this leaves room for discrepancies, unjust ways of deciphering differences and biases, and unclear or invalid ideologies — not just in English or history courses, but also in the sciences — a field that is intended to be objective.
At the college-level, students beliefs’ are also being challenged. Professors are encountering that many students’ understandings of race are conservative, or have not been questioned, or are just…racist.
Charles King, a college professor and author of Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century shares that each society holds diverse definitions of “race.” Instead of teaching students to define or validate a race, he urges educators to teach about how “pseudo-science was used to build whiteness, not just blackness and illustrate the ways in which faulty scientific reasoning was used by the Nazis as well as by American eugenicists of the 1920s and 1930s,” in this TIME article, “American Students Are Taught Racism Is Bad — But They’re Still Not Learning the Truth About Race.”
Demonstrate the principles of genetic inheritance by showing explicitly that the things Americans associate with race — such as skin color, hair texture, and eye shape — don’t cluster in the ways we might believe. Chart the complexities of global genetic variation and the weird, looping pathways that led from our distant ancestors down to us. Talk about other forms of biologized difference, such as caste in India and gender and sexuality in contemporary America, and compare them to what people typically say about the fixedness or fluidity of race.
How are politics influencing how our students are taught?
At the start of the 2020–2021 academic year, schools frantically drew uncertain plans into place as state officials determined whether institutions had appropriate measures in place to safely re-open. Meanwhile, parents scrambled once again to find childcare, and decide on whether their child(ren) would resume remote learning, attend in-person, or a hybrid of both. On the other hand, college students decided whether they were staying on-campus or returning home. It can feel like our federal government is meddling in all aspects of our lives — including a bigger handle on how we teach our students.
This fall, teachers across the country received a copy of the American Educator: A Journal of Educational Equity, Research, And Ideas in their mailbox. Greeted with a progressive, yet political cover, readers are called to vote, and introduced to topics ranging from the Presidential election, resources on teaching for racial equity and justice, America’s response to COVID-19, and the importance of listening to ideas and supporting civil rights without silencing others.
Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), states that, “the three crises — the pandemic, the worsening economic inequality, and the long overdue reckoning with systemic racism,” are all made worse by President Donald J. Trump. Weingarten explains that Trump jeopardized the health of American students, educators, staff and families when he claimed that children are “practically immune” to COVID-19.
She also echoes the organization’s values on choosing community over chaos, and makes their support for the Biden-Harris campaign known. “We care, fight, show up, and vote.” In addition to creating true economic fairness and opportunity, Democratic Presidential Nominee, Joe Biden, plans to make college affordable and help borrowers who are buried in student debt. (I share some of Senator Harris’ previous policies and current milestones in “Understand Kamala Harris’ VP Nomination and Why it’s Historical.")
Moving our students forward
One thing remains true regardless of anyone’s political agenda: building an educational foundation for topics is critical for the learning process. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) supports incorporating anti-bias education into school systems, and recommends starting racial conversations when students are young, and teaching about the origins of the Black Lives Matter movement, and how to go beyond using it as just a hashtag. While this idea is just a seedling in the wake of civil rights, some schools are already beginning to implement tactics that support marginalized communities in other ways — even on a smaller scale.
In New York City, programs like Learning Bridges, are offering priority placement for students in public or temporary housing, NYCDOE students, students with disabilities, and children whose parent(s) or guardian is an essential worker. Learning Bridges provides free childcare to children from kindergarten through 8th grade on days when they are scheduled for remote learning. The program will provide full-day supervision, educational support for remote learning, as well as enrichment activities (arts, recreation, tutoring, social-emotional supports, field trips where possible) for days when students are on remote instruction
Chicago, which operates the nation’s third largest public-school district, started remote learning with a rough start. In March, barely half of the city’s students logged into their Google accounts for school, according to Chicago Public School (CPS) data. The numbers were lowest for Black students. Many students didn’t have access to basic tools like pencils and computers. After a major call-to-action to rush supplies to students in need, and a strenuous summer prepping for the new school year, Latasha Geverola, the principal at Oscar DePriest Elementary, on Chicago’s West Side took matters into her own hands. In this The New Yorker article, “Running a Virtual School on Chicago’s West Side,” Geverola explains that with the help of lots of personal journaling and therapy, she managed to personally check in on some students at home to ensure they’re able to log into virtual classrooms.
What’s certain is that no matter how big or small an academic gesture may be, its impacts are long-lasting. When Principal Geverola did see “teachers teaching and students learning,” tears came to her eyes. “It means we can do it when we work together,” she said.
Systemic issues will continue to be exacerbated by the pandemic, so it is even more important today than ever before to keep marginalized students top of mind. The National Education Association (NEA) reports that an estimated 25% of school-aged students (5–17) don’t have access to the necessary tools to successfully participate in remote learning.
What you can do
To end the digital divide and bridge the homework gap, Americans are urged to ask lawmakers to pass the Heath and Economic Relief Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act (HEROES) and to fund the federal E-Rate program — the best way to ensure the students who need internet access get it and to distribute emergency funds equitably.
Election Day is a week out. If you’re a registered voter, you can cast your ballot early, vote in person on November 3rd, or submit your absentee ballot by your state’s postmarked deadline.