Why Closing Schools Exacerbates Inequity


Many have already picked up on how COVID-19 is exacerbating already existing inequities, from a few different angles:

  • Those who have adequate tech devices and bandwidth vs. those who don’t
  • Those who have pre-existing conditions and health issues vs. those who don’t

Both of these factors loom large in the schools and communities I serve in the Bronx. Many of our students and their families don’t have iPads, laptops, or a desktop computer, nor adequate internet access and bandwidth.

The NYCDOE is tackling this inequity as best it can, sending out internet-enabled devices as they come in to families the most in need. The total number identified needing devices was initially 300,000. That’s a lot to get out there, but it’s happening. That’s amazing.

At first, Spectrum and Optimum were refusing to provide service to those with unpaid bills. Thanks to reporting on this by Chalkbeat and getting publicly shamed, they’ve reversed course.

In terms of health issues, residents of the Bronx are reported to be twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as residents in other parts of the city.

If you have a background of inequality, whether it’s social determinants, access to health care, or anything else, and you throw a virus on top of that, what you’re going to get is exactly what we have, which is people who start out poorer and sicker and are going to get sicker,” said Dr. Neil Calman, president of the Institute for Family Health, which leads the Bronx Health REACH coalition.

And to add to that, poorer people tend to live in greater density. There’s more people sharing apartments, in more crowded buildings, in more crowded neighborhoods, with less means to get any distance from anything. It’s hard to escape a pandemic in such situations, most especially when you still need to get out on public transit to earn your paycheck because you are one of those “essential” workers who are on the front lines of ensuring wealthier people never have to leave their homes.

And we can see this playing out in real-time. Here’s the most recent map of COVID-19 cases in the Bronx.

https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page

See all that deep purple in the middle-west side of the Bronx? That’s where the highest rates of cases are occurring. Those are the communities I serve. We don’t yet know how these correlate to death rates and to socioeconomic status and to race.

But we know enough to know it’s not good. And it’s going to get much worse.

When Home Offers Little Comfort

But I also think we’re overlooking something fundamental about how COVID-19 will further exacerbate social and other inequalities. Closing schools doesn’t just exacerbate inequity because some kids have more access to technology and internet. It further exacerbates inequity because staying at home may mean overcrowded and stressed conditions with poor acoustics, poor air quality, and few trees and other greenery nearby.

In the area of the Bronx my schools are in, we also have the highest rate of students in temporary housing in the city. So what does staying at “home” mean for them? When even in the best of times such instability can be stressful, imagine what that might be like in the midst of a pandemic, as people are losing their jobs, as people are losing their mothers and fathers and grandparents and relatives, as real fear sets in, as the weather warms up and tempers flare, as the streets are filled with the sound of gunning engines and ambulances?

Being at home may mean idyllic boredom for some. For others, it may mean something much more dire. Toxic stress in high poverty blocks was already a killer. Now, we’ve got this pandemic on top of all that.

The optimistic side of me wants to believe that this remote learning thing can be an opportunity to get kids engaged who weren’t engaged by typical school. But the pessimistic side of me is afraid to think more deeply on what this may mean the longer we draw out keeping schools closed.

There’s no winning, either way. Either way, the same communities will lose, big time. That’s the hard thing to look at straight.

We’re talking mitigation, instead of acceleration. We’re talking desperation, instead of inspiration.

I’m hoping this is wrong. I’m hoping we can make this right. Working in education means, fundamentally, that you believe teaching and learning will make the world a better place. I believe it. Let’s reach our kids who are the hardest to reach, who need us the most to reach them, with whatever Zoom Chromebook iPad remote learning application livestream we can.

One thought on “Why Closing Schools Exacerbates Inequity

  1. Pingback: To synchronize or asynchronize instruction, that is the balance – Schools & Ecosystems

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