A friend of mine posted this haiku on Facebook and there were numerous comments about privilege, depression due to isolation, and youth suicide. It struck me that a short, three line poem can evoke such strong emotions in so many people. It is true, there is privilege in being able to stay home. Not everyone has that luxury, and not everyone functions well when faced with social isolation. It really got me thinking about inequality in society, and how that lends to inequality in education, especially during a pandemic.
Prior to COVID-19, students had access to teachers, counsellors, books, computers, the internet, and in some cases schools even provided food. When schools were forced to shut down in many regions in March or April, friends of mine asked for my opinion on whether kids would fall behind. I told them that kids are resilient, and as long as they were reading, they would be fine. I’m not so sure I believe that now. Without schools operating as they once were, the gap between educational equality seems to be widening, or perhaps the pandemic is just shining a spotlight on it.
Some school boards in Canada are operating with full-time classes, some have adopted a hybrid learning model and others are completely online.Since I have one son, who owns a laptop with high speed internet, and goes to school 2.5 days a week, he is thriving. He receives instructions at school, and he has independent learning tasks at home, with supplemental Zoom meetings when he is not at school. He has regular contact with teachers and friends in a safe, highly engaging environment. In speaking with friends and former colleagues, we realize how very fortunate we are.
What happens if you have more than one child? What if you have four children working from home? Does everyone have access to a laptop? If not, how does a family manage to get their child to a Zoom meeting, when another child has one at the same time? How do you make those tough decisions? What if a parent or parents are also working from home? What if you don’t have a laptop, or internet at your home? What are your options?
While some of these issues are socio-economic, others have to do with geography. Not every community has access to the internet, and satellite internet or cellular connections can be spotty or unreliable. In the Spring when schools were closed, one rural community in Alberta was creating packages for their students, which were delivered and picked up again by the bus drivers. I was impressed with this creative idea, since it allowed bus drivers to continue to work, when they normally would have been laid off. The problem is, since the packages are in response to no internet or limited internet, they are often full of busy work. There wasn’t much room for independent study or collaboration within these packages.
Even when students have access to laptops and the internet, they may still experience inequality. My friend in Vancouver had a very unfortunate situation at the start of remote learning which I relaid in one of my comments. Her son was asked to set up his work station as his only assignment for his first week. During his second week, he was asked to think of two stars and a wish. Keep in mind, he is in Grade Seven. I understand that many schools and teachers were caught off guard, but this was unbelievable and unacceptable, in my opinion.
I worry, due to no fault of their own, many students will be left behind or will give up in frustration. How do we overcome these disparities? How do we ensure that all students regardless of socio-economic status, or geography have access to high quality education? As cases of COVID-19 are increasing in many parts of the world, including Canada, we need to reflect on our preparedness for a possible return to online teaching. Are there ways we can provide rich learning experiences for our students which allow them to develop the knowledge, skills and competencies necessary to thrive in a modern world? What are the implications if this is not possible? What are the long term effects of inequality in education? These are questions I ask myself as the cases of COVID are again on the rise.