Will pandemic school be a trade-off between safety and equity?

Educators say both are critical for children to learn and grow, whether in the classroom or online

a row of three yellow school buses
Row Of American school buses (Getty Images)

What are the choices that confront parents, school districts and communities this fall, as the first day of the school year draws near and the COVID-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating?

Barely a month from the first day of the fall semester, some school districts are backing away from starting the year with in-person classes. Teachers unions are campaigning against returning to the classroom without stronger health and safety protections — and until the country can tamp down the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Meanwhile, from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on down to some state legislators comes an insistent cry for school to go forward the way it’s always been. While it seems unlikely to pass, newly elected 7th District U.S. Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) is cosponsoring a bill in Congress that would pull federal funding from schools that don’t open in person by Sept. 8.

Republican lawmakers and suburban Milwaukee school superintendents drew up a  document in mid-July taking a more flexible stance. Their plan prefers in-person classes, but declares that “school reopening decisions should be informed based upon current health data”; it allows for online instruction “when virtual learning is a necessary precaution” or the preference of individual families.

“There is no one-size-fits-all plan for our schools,” Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) stated, summarizing that report, “but these guidelines outline the priorities of getting kids back to school, back into the classrooms, and back to normalcy.”

“Back to normal” is at the core of many arguments for resuming in-person teaching. Arguments for equity are, too.

“Beyond supporting the educational development of children and adolescents, schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity,” the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) states in a guidance document the organization issued in late June.As such, it is critical to reflect on the differential impact SARS-CoV-2 and the associated school closures have had on different races, ethnic and vulnerable populations.”

While the AAP report details at length steps schools will need to take for safe in-person operations, the medical association “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

The calculus, though, is more complex than a binary choice of learning vs. health, or equity vs. safety, says Gloria Ladson-Billings, an emerita professor with the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. And “getting back to normal” is the wrong goal.

“Normal is the place where the problem was for a number of kids,” says Ladson-Billings, who is president of the National Academy of Education. The pandemic has uncovered longstanding “social and economic inequities. A specific group of kids were not doing well in school as it was. I think going back to that is not a remedy.”

A ‘hard reset’

Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Ladson-Billlings doesn’t deny that the switch to virtual education in the spring was fraught with challenges — for children who had struggled in school and their families, but also for those who had been accustomed to success. In looking toward a virtual start in the fall, “if the presumption is that they won’t suffer at all, I think that’s erroneous.”

The academic gap that separates children by race and class is likely to be “exacerbated by the fact that many of the kids who have struggled also have parents who fall into that category we call essential workers,” she adds — from bus drivers and grocery clerks to nursing home workers and hospital custodians: “Their ability to just sit with their kids and convey the academic aspect of it is going to be severely compromised.”

Cynthia Ellwood is a former Milwaukee Public School elementary school principal and high school teacher who now teaches at Marquette University’s College of Education, where she’s director of graduate studies.

“Low-income parents need to go to work,” Ellwood says. “And that’s a safety issue for children, if their parents are not there or if they end up in day care, where we don’t have the opportunity to give kids the social distancing and some of the support that they might need.”

In their distinctive ways, both Ellwood and Ladson-Billings challenge the premise of simply pitting health against educational equity.

 “Those things need to be considered side by side, and not be set up in some kind of opposition all the time,” Ellwood says.

Ladson-Billings says this is an opportunity for “a hard reset” in education. She’s taken to quoting from a recent essay by the author Arundhati Roy. “She says that historically pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and to imagine their world anew — and that this one is no different. It’s a portal, it’s a gateway, between one world and the next.”

It’s important to remember that school is not only for learning academics, she says.

“If we are going to center the argument only on the academic, I think we are missing the point about what schools actually do, to create a level of socialization,” says Ladson-Billings. “That’s  important for the citizen-building goals of schools that will bring them together in the first place, in a democratic society — to suggest that they learn how to get along with a whole lot of different people, as well as learning multiple perspectives.”

Learning doesn’t stop

And learning doesn’t stop just because school looks different — or ends up not operating at all. “Human beings are learners,” Ladson-Billings says. That learning has continued even as kids went home in March for the rest of the school year, although the lessons might not wind up on the state assessments.

“One of the things that kids are learning is that society is deeply divided,” she says. “One of the things we’re learning is that it’s inequitable — and it’s been that way for a long time. And people are upset and angry.”

Professor Cynthia Ellwood, Marquette University

Ellwood agrees. “We should not be backing off on the kind of equity attention that we may have already begun,” she says. And whether the classroom is in-person or an online portal, educators need to think about how to make the experience “more responsive to every child.”

Some of that begins with bringing parents into the picture as schools consider how to go forward, says Ellwood. Surveys and listening sessions are a start, but if schools are “failing to differentiate within the voices of those parents, they are failing to look at the safety of all children,” she cautions. “If they were to differentiate among the parents, then they could deal with both safety and equity at the same time.”

In practical terms, Ellwood says, as schools consider how they might shift their staffing to meet new needs resulting from the pandemic, they will need to take into account the needs of all families. They also can look at new options in how they do what they do.

Are there ways to reassign school paraprofessionals, the people who assist in classrooms or at recess or in the lunchroom, for example?

“So we have people that need this employment, that know our children, and they could be spread out over the building, just as children are spread out over the building,” Ellwood continues. “By considering both parents and kids simultaneously, and by considering safety and equity simultaneously, I think we actually can come up with some solutions that are really good for both.”

Connecting with students and the community

If school ends up being away from school, Ladson-Billings says, there are other community resources that can be tapped to make education a community-wide engagement.

“We should not be operating in these silos,” she says. “Instead of thinking of these other organizations, whether it’s a library, or a community center, as ‘after school,’ from now on, these are co-partners with schools.” If health concerns lead schools to institute just part-time schedules in the classroom, “these other institutions need to say, ‘OK, and this is what we’re doing on these other days in concert with you.’”

Ladson-Billings recalls a recent conversation with a school administrator in Virginia. 

“She said, ‘What the pandemic is showing me is how much more important our kids’ social, emotional and mental health needs are. And I’m not the least bit worried about reading and mathematics assessment — I’m worried that we are not helping our kids grow into healthy human beings. And that’s what our focus is on — and I need to do the same thing for the adults in my building, my teachers.’”

Building that sort of personal connection was behind a practice that one of Ellwood’s graduate students implemented in her middle-school classroom last year — then adopted to the virtual classroom when her school building closed in March.

Before the pandemic, Kenosha math teacher Emily Carton instituted a new ritual for her homeroom students: a daily question she would pose for them to ponder and react to. Some were reflective, such as highs and lows from the weekend, and others whimsical, like “would you rather be a doll or a chicken?” Carton says.

“It really became something that they would look forward to, and a way for us to check in with each other and also to build trust with one another,” she says.

After everyone was sent home for the rest of the spring semester, she tweaked the ritual for online use, distributing the question to her students with the help of a reminder app on their phones.

“And it was a nice way for me to check in to see, like, who’s really struggling,” says Carton. “Or who’s doing well, what are they doing to do well — and it was just a nice way to feel centered.”

That sort of activity “admits kids’ lives into the classroom,” says Ellwood. “And I think that’s a really important equity issue” — because it must make room for the wide variety of experiences children have.

“Black kids have experienced this summer in a very different way than white kids,” says Ellwood. “And both sets of kids have seen George Floyd killed on TV over and over and over again. That is a part of their lives in which really rich learning can happen…. The curriculum more than ever needs to admit kids’ lives into the classroom.”

As a teacher, says Emily Carton, whether online or in the classroom, “our job is not just to teach kids. It is also to look after their well-being. And so that’s where this activity falls in. And I fully plan to do this next year whether we are virtual or in person.

“You have to build a human-to-human connection,” Carton continues. “I’m not just somebody who spits out math lessons for students to complete and only cares about equations all day long. I care about who my students are as people, I care about what they like. I care about their fears. I care about what makes them happy —and that has to be done first.

“And if that takes a little bit longer, then that’s just something that has to be done in order to equitably reach all students.”