The empire has no clothes: A pandemic exposes the wreckage of the US education system
Do you hear that silence?
That’s the absence of footsteps echoing through our nation’s public school hallways. It’s the silence of teaching in a virtual space populated with students on mute who lack a physical presence. It’s the crushing silence of those who are now missing, who can’t attend the classroom that Zoom and Google built.
Maybe you heard the shouted pleas of teachers across the country last year as we walked out of our classrooms and into the streets, begging for affordable housing, health care, and access to equitable funding and resources for our students? Or maybe you heard the impassioned screams of frightened kids as they stormed into the streets and onto the news, demanding safety and an end to the threat of gun violence in our nation’s school buildings? Now, there’s nothing left to hear.
Today, all we’re left with is a deafening silence that muffles the sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of what was. The institutions charged with caring for and guiding our most valuable assets -- our children -- were already gutted by half a century of chronic underfunding, misguided curricular policies that prioritized testing over real learning, and social policies that favored austerity over taking care of the most vulnerable members of our society. Now that so many teachers are sequestered and alone or locked away with family, our bonds of proximity broken, we’re forced to stare into that void, scrambling to find and care for our students across an abyss of silence. The system is broken. The empire has no clothes.
Not so many weeks ago, I used to be a teacher in a sprawling public high school outside Portland, Oregon. Before the virus arrived, I taught painting, drawing, ceramics, and filmmaking in three different studio classrooms. There, groups of students ranging across the economic, ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic spectrum sat shoulder to shoulder, chatting and creating, day after day, year after year. Music played and we talked.
On some days, the classes were cacophonous and chaotic; on others, calm and productive. In those spaces, we did our best to connect, to forge thriving communities. What I now realize, though, is that the physical space we shared was the only thing truly tying us all together. Those classrooms were the duct tape securing the smashed bumper on the wreck of a car that was our public education system.
Now, it couldn’t be more obvious: no one’s going to solve the problems of our present and near future with the usual solutions. When desperation leaves us without imagination, clinging to old answers, scrambling to prop up systems that perpetuated and solidified inequity, it means missing the real opportunity of this otherwise grim moment. The “great pause” that is the Covid-19 shutdown has allowed us all to stare into the void, to see far more clearly just how schools have long shouldered the burdens of a society that functions largely for the privileged, leaving the rest of our nation’s children and families to gather the crumbs of whatever remains.
The Privilege of Homeschooling
In the first weeks after schools closed across the country, as parents struggled to “homeschool” their children, memes, rants, tweets, and strongly worded emails to school administrators popped up across the Internet. They expressed the frustrations of the moment. Those shared tales of the laughably insane trials and tribulations of parents trying to provide a reasonable facsimile of an education to kids sequestered at home, while still trying to work full time under the specter of a pandemic, amazed and depressed me.
Television producer and writer Shonda Rimes tweeted, “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” Rimes's tweet seemed to encapsulate the absurd reality of life at home with kids in the time of the coronavirus. As I read her tweet, I laughed out loud and in utter solidarity with her. A teacher no less, I, too, was trying and failing spectacularly to oversee the “education” of an increasingly frustrated and resistant third grader from home.
For those of us siloed in our privilege -- healthy, with plenty of food stocked away in cupboards, quiet rooms with doors that shut, ample Internet access, and enough Wi-Fi-enabled devices to share among the members of our households -- our quarantined home life is challenging, but not impossible. Our daily frustration continues to be a function of that privilege. For those without it, those who were already living in poverty or at its brink when the pandemic struck, homeschooling poses yet another crushing hurdle in life. How can you provide an education for your children when simply securing food, work, and shelter is your all-consuming reality?
Meanwhile, as exhausted parents screamed at school districts, teachers, and administrators on the Internet about providing virtual learning resources and online curricula to engage students during the school day, public school officials (at least in my world) were scrambling to deal with a far more immediate threat: kids going hungry. What this pandemic promptly revealed was that the most fundamental and urgent service schools provide to many children is simply feeding them.
The gravest and most immediate threat to our most vulnerable students was, and continues to be, hunger. If schools are closed, so is the critical infrastructure that helps keep our nation’s children fed. Aside from SNAP (the food stamp program), the National School Lunch Program is the largest anti-hunger initiative in the country. It feeds 29.7 million children on school days, with an additional 14.7 million children fed thanks to the School Breakfast Program and more than 6.1 million via the Child and Adult Care Food Program. And those numbers don’t even include the informal system of food distribution that teachers often provide students in their classrooms. On average, teachers spend upwards of 300 of their own dollars yearly providing food to students.
So, no wonder that, as soon as Covid-19 closed the doors of our schools, administrators, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and volunteers across the country mobilized on a large -- and downright heroic -- scale to attempt to keep those students fed. In the Beaverton school district where I teach, a “Grab and Go” curbside meal distribution program was quickly set up, making daily meals accessible to every student in the district. As economic conditions head for Great Depression-level misery, think of these as 2020 versions of the infamous breadlines of that era, only in this case they’re for children (and sometimes their families).
The responsibility for feeding students was not the only immediate concern. The adults in our school typically also serve as first responders for those students. We monitor their moods and listen to their stories. We notice when kids are struggling emotionally and, as mandatory reporters, step in when we suspect a child is living in a perilous or unsafe situation.
In the first weeks after we left our classrooms, calls to Oregon’s child abuse hotline dropped by more than half. Other states across the nation reported similar declines. The drop in calls has frightening implications. Coupled with increasing economic insecurity and social isolation, rising rates of child abuse are undoubtedly imminent. When teachers, counselors, and school social workers are no longer able to observe and communicate openly with students, signs of neglect or abuse are much more likely to go undetected and unreported.
The closure of our buildings also poses a huge barrier to the normal support of students struggling with mental-health issues. Our children are already suffering from alarming rates of depression and anxiety. Isolating them from their friends, peers, mentors, caregivers, and teachers will only compound their mental-health challenges.
Trying to Bridge the Digital Divide
Add the surreal nature of an invisible foe to a lack of clear directives from both the federal and state government and you have a formula for problems. When we were finally instructed to leave our school, it was without advanced warning. In my classrooms, half-finished clay projects littered the countertops, while palettes loaded with acrylic paint and incomplete canvases were left to desiccate and gather dust on the shelves.
Students departed without cleaning out their lockers or often even gathering their schoolwork and books, not to speak of the supplies they’ll need to complete that work at home. And even though our students do have access to technology -- three years ago, our district adopted a policy of providing a Chromebook to each student -- it soon became apparent that there were huge obstacles to overcome in transforming our brick-and-mortar classrooms into virtual spaces. Many students had, for instance, broken or lost their Chromebooks. Some had missing chargers. And even many of those who had their Chromebooks with them at home had limited or no access to Wi-Fi connectivity.
Trying to reach all my students across that digital divide became the central focus of my waking hours. I made calls; I texted; I emailed; I posted announcements in my digital classroom stating that we’d be reconvening online. Still, none of these efforts mattered for the students stuck at home without Wi-Fi or lacking the necessary devices.
Before our nation’s schools closed, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that around 21 million people in America did not have broadband Internet access. According to data collected by Microsoft, however, the number who can’t access the Internet at broadband speeds is actually closer to 163 million. While districts across the country scrambled to provide mobile hotspots and working devices to students, teachers like me began the demoralizing and herculean task of scrapping years of thoughtfully crafted curriculums in order to provide an entirely new online learning experience. We stepped into our virtual classrooms with the knowledge that, no matter how many shiny new digital resources we have at our disposal, there’s nothing we can do to provide equitable access to education remotely.
And even if we were to solve such problems, we couldn’t offer the space or the support students need to learn. Kids living in cramped situations will struggle just to find a quiet place to attend our online classes. Those whose working parents suddenly need childcare for younger siblings have sometimes found themselves taking on the roll of primary caregivers.
Some students whose families were in ever more perilous economic situations increased their work hours and scrapped the idea of attending school altogether. And many of our English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students, as well as the 14% of students nationally who require additional “learning supports,” are now in trouble. They’ve been left to navigate a complex web of digital platforms and new learning approaches without the individualized attention or frequent checks for understanding that they rely on from their teachers.
What virtual learning can never stand in for is the moment when a student leans over and asks me or a peer for help. That simple act of vulnerability that builds a bridge to another human being may be the most important moment in any classroom and now it’s gone. In Covid-19 America, when school kids need help most, they can’t simply lean over and ask for it.
The Time to Pivot
Today, I teach from my kitchen, my dining room, or the floor of my bedroom. I stare across the digital abyss into the pixelated faces of just a handful of students. It’s impossible to read their emotions or body language. Even when I unmute them, most choose not to speak.
Each day, fewer of them show up to class. Sometimes, students turn off their videos, and I speak only to a sea of black rectangles, the white text of the student’s name the sole indicator of his or her presence in my new classroom. Not surprisingly, our sessions together are stilted and awkward. I try to make jokes and connect, but it’s impossible to replicate online the intimacy of a face-to-face interaction. The magic of what was, of 25 to 40 students working cohesively in community, is lost.
And in the darkest hours of the early morning, when I wake with a start, crushing anxiety pushing on my chest, I think about all the third graders unable to participate in my daughter’s distance-learning classroom. I wonder about the students I’ve still been unable to reach -- the ones who haven’t responded to my emails or completed any assignments, and whose faces I never see online. Where are they? How are they? I have no way of knowing.
Our world no longer looks the same. This pause, which has caused, and will continue to cause, so much suffering may also be a gift, offering a shift in perspective and a chance to pivot. Perhaps it’s a rare opportunity to acknowledge that our nation’s public schools should not be left so alone to provide food, mental health care, and digital connectivity for our nation’s children. That should be, in a fashion almost unimaginable in America today, the role of the larger society.
Now is not the time to be silent but to raise our voices, using any privilege we may have, be it in time, money, or simply access, to demand major changes both in how all of us think about our American world and in the systems that perpetuate such inhumane and unconscionable disparities for so many.
There is no way to continue putting yet more duct tape on that smashed bumper of a public education system that was already such a wreck before the coronavirus arrived on these shores. Nor is this the time to retreat into our silos, hoarding privilege along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, too cowardly to demand more for all the children in this country. It’s time instead to reach out across the six feet of social-distancing space that now divides us all and demand more for those who aren’t able to demand it for themselves.
Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, and is now teaching from her home in Portland, Oregon.
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Copyright 2020 Belle Chesler