An Opportunity for Equity

Like the rest of the world, we had no idea when we left school that day in the middle of March that we would not be returning. On that last day there was a snow-day-like atmosphere of excitement, and my students were buzzing with anticipation of an unexpected break. I revised my regular reading lesson plan to allow time to explain the five days of AMI (Alternative Method of Instruction) work that I had posted online, which I thought would be three days more than they would need.

Kyzer was anxious because he did not have internet access at home. He had made such strides this year, and he was worried about how his inability to complete AMI work online would hurt his grade. Several students echoed his concern. I told them not to worry; paper packets were being printed for any student who did not have reliable internet access, and they could do the work on paper and turn it in when we returned. Hugs and reassurances were exchanged as my students left each class period.

We had no idea.

By the third week out, the district had instructed us to put all AMI work exclusively online. This was fine for the students who were wealthy enough to have home technology and internet access. I had already been using some wonderful online resources in my classroom, so for my students with tech and internet access, the transition would be seamless. Each student had a Clever account complete with an email address for use within our school network. I had each of my six class sections set up on Google Classroom where I regularly posted reading assignments from Common Lit and ReadTheory. I used Remind in conjunction with email and phone calls to communicate with parents. I discovered Zoom and set a schedule of regular weekly video chats with my students. Audible allowed free audiobook downloads for students, and our local Faulkner County Library sent out instructions for online book checkout.

These were all invaluable resources to support continuing some sense of normalcy in our unexpected transition to learning outside of the classroom. However, many anxious students and parents started reaching out with concerns about the lack of computers or internet access. Our district responded by sending out a message with a link for parents to sign up to check out one Chromebook per family, and our community electric services utility company set up free wifi locations in the parking lots of the library, schools, and public parks.

This system, however, was still cumbersome for many. Students in families with multiple children had to wait their turn to use the Chromebook and often had to wait for parents to use it for their own jobs. And that was assuming they had access to technology to get to the link in the first place! Families had to have transportation to get to the wifi parking lots, and then needed to sit for hours in the car while students worked.

The gravity of the situation was beginning to set in. Students and parents were stressed. For many of our parents, the pressures of unexpected homeschooling and restricted access to technology were compounded by food insecurity and potential job loss.

The situation moved from stressful to dangerous for some children.

There were already reports of increases in homelessness, abuse, and neglect during the quarantine. The Covid19 pandemic is different from other traumatic events: it is unpredictable, uncontrollable, and unexpected.  Children take their cues from the adults in their lives, and right now, adults do not exactly know how to deal with this unprecedented event. This type of toxic stress can negatively impact the mental and physical health of children. I was very worried about all of my students, especially the ones I could not reach online, by phone, or even by a mailed letter. It was as if several of my most vulnerable students had simply disappeared. No one anticipated the depth of this pandemic. I fear that the negative impact of toxic stress on the lives and brains of my students will be long lasting.

These weeks away from my classroom, I have been grateful for the abundance of quality online resources that have enabled me to continue to educate some of my students.  But all of that means nothing if my most vulnerable students do not have reliable technology and free internet access at home.

This is a historic opportunity to make a more flexible, sustainable, equitable education system for all students. Internet access is now a necessity of modern education and should not be only for those students whose families can afford it. Student access to wifi is an equity issue. It should not just be the wealthy families who can continue to access education in situations that force us to continue learning outside of the classroom.

I am hopeful. I hope that this experience will be the push that will create a more equitable education system for all of my students. All stakeholders including administrators, politicians, parents, community leaders, and teachers, must find a way to provide free internet access and adequate technology tools for all public school students.

Kathy Powers has enjoyed 27 years of teaching students in elementary school, middle school, and college, and currently teaches reading and language arts to fifth-grade students in Conway, Arkansas. Powers earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology and Elementary Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she began her career teaching first grade.  She earned her Master of Science degree in Reading Education from the University of Central Arkansas and her National Board Certification in Literacy.  In 2011, she was named the Arkansas Teacher of the Year.  The following year she was selected as one of 35 teachers from across the nation to travel to China as a National Teacher of Excellence and was later named an America Achieves Fellow.  Powers is a proud member of NNSTOY.

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