This week, the librarian who wrote the Yale Book of Quotations published his list of the top quotes of 2020; unsurprisingly, the top two spots on the list were held by “Wear a mask” (Dr. Anthony Fauci) and “I can’t breathe” (George Floyd). These two quotes, which speak to the COVID-19 pandemic and to racial/social injustice and inequity, point clearly to two of the most pressing issues we face in today’s world. So it is fitting that the EdCan Network has chosen the theme of “Educational Equity in the COVID-19 Era.”
The series of 12 articles published this fall tackle the issue’s theme from a wide array of perspectives, including school and central office leaders, teachers, students, and parents. As the series comes to a close, we consider the narratives and lessons that emerge from both the content of these articles and our own experiences, and we ask ourselves what these narratives might tell us about where we go from here.
Lesson 1: Educators can, and do, leverage technologies in powerful and creative ways, but inequitable access to devices and connectivity remains a major barrier to student success.
In her article, “Teaching through the Screen,” Stephanie Cortese describes her struggle to connect authentically to her students via digital platforms, as well as the joy she experiences as she discovers new ways to leverage technology to “cradle interconnection and create a new dimension of teacher/student relationships.” Indeed, as we progress through the pandemic, we have witnessed incredible examples of teachers’ creative, effective, and innovative uses of technology, with educators turning to platforms like YouTube and TikTok to engage students in learning. However, we can’t rely on educators alone to make e-learning work for all students; in “E-learning at Home,” the authors note that access to digital devices has been a significant challenge, particularly for children in more vulnerable communities. And while many provincial and territorial initiatives have been devised to equip low-income families with laptops and Internet access, the fact remains that without sufficient training on the use of technology for educational purposes, these programs will do little to remedy the inequities that exist. It is clear that more comprehensive long-term solutions, including equitable access and tech-related instruction for students, and professional learning programs and support for teachers and administrators, are needed to bridge the digital divide in our schools.
Lesson 2: As home-school relationships become increasingly important, parents’ abilities to support their children’s learning can have a major impact.
As educators, we’ve long known the importance of strong home-school relationships. But as schools transitioned to online learning in the spring, those relationships became even more critical as the tasks of supervising and supporting children’s learning fell increasingly on parents and guardians. For example, researchers found that for families of students with special education needs (SEN), the quality of at-home schooling was closely correlated with the quality of the “working alliance that existed between parents and school staff”; the best outcomes occurred when there was frequent and positive communication between home and school. However, for many working parents, the task of supervising at-home learning presented a considerable challenge, with lower-income families finding it particularly difficult to balance their own work schedules with the added pressures of increased parental involvement in remote learning. Indeed, in “Class Matters,” Andy Hargreaves argues that the issue of socio-economic diversity is frequently ignored in discussions of inclusivity and calls for increased focus on the effects of class inequality on educational outcomes.
Lesson 3: School climate has a significant effect on how teachers, learners, and parents experience school, but care must be taken to ensure inclusivity for all members of the school community.
Life in the midst of a pandemic can be incredibly stressful, and adding the anxiety of remote learning into the equation creates incredible pressure for families. A positive school climate can play a major role in lowering stress levels all around, and effective, frequent, and consistent communication is an important factor. School and central office leaders can set the tone for teachers, parents, and students, and a “clear focus on calm, steadfast, patient messaging” is key. As we grapple with the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on vulnerable communities, however, leaders must also ensure that they maintain focus on these inequities and should carefully consider “what kind of spaces they are creating for teachers, students, and their families to dialogue about equity issues.”
Lesson 4: The move to remote learning has laid bare the degree to which teachers’ (and schools’) roles extend beyond academic instruction.
With the move to online learning, those outside of the field of education are beginning to understand what we as educators have known all along: that “the role of ‘teacher’ is much more than one of providing academic knowledge and skills to students.” Indeed, schools and teachers play a number of important roles in students’ lives, relating to many aspects of students’ health and well-being. For the most vulnerable students, at-home schooling has in some cases meant a loss of access to food, to a safe space, or to mental and physical health supports. This is partly why, as Paul Bennett notes, “Closing all schools should be the last resort this time around.” But some researchers now point to the opportunity offered by this realization of the critical role of schools and teachers, calling not for a return to business as usual but to a future in which teachers are no longer asked to “do more with less” and our education systems are rebuilt on “solid foundations of sustainable equity and well-being.” And this brings us to our final lesson.
Lesson 5: The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic offer a tremendous opportunity for transformational change in our education systems, should we choose to take it up.
While many of us may crave a return to normalcy, we must also consider the injustice and inequity that “normalcy” actually entails. The current moment, while challenging on numerous fronts, also offers a chance for a fresh start; this message of hope and possibility is woven through a number of the articles in this issue. Indeed, as Stephanie Cortese reminds us, “As we transfer our binders and printed lessons onto digital platforms, and blend our classrooms into interactive and accessible hubs, we need to embrace a new vision of what an educator can be. It is not the end of the role, but rather a transformation of it, which we get to be part of.”
This transformation holds the promise of profound structural change: it might allow us, for instance, to explore “the ways that white supremacy has been manifested by COVID-19 and to challenge the devastating effects the pandemic has on racialized students.” The return to “normalcy” is certainly the easier route to take, but as educators, we must recognize the profound implications of the path that we choose going forward, and the impact that it will have on the students in our classrooms for many years to come. As we sit at the crossroads of the twin crises of COVID-19 and social inequity, we should take to heart Vidya Shah’s words: “May we find the individual and collective courage to centre relationality, community, and collective care above our individual fears, insecurities, and self-interest.”
Photo: Adobe Stock