It’s too soon to know how as Americans or humans we are going to get through this pandemic when we are not at the end of the beginning; when one after another, shops and businesses shutter, state after state, county after county, like wandering through the house of many mansions turning out the lights. We hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Perhaps the end of the beginning comes when everyone in the U.S. is ordered home at the same time – and then, if we are lucky, we are waiting for an all-clear.
There was early pressure on schools to close, for good epidemiological reasons. There was never any doubt public health took precedence over an uninterrupted classroom education. In Colorado, the governor finally ordered those schools closed that had not already. The closures could be extended through the end of the school year, two months away.
Almost everywhere now, schools are working to accommodate students and teachers with online learning. Teachers are being asked to do a lot in a hurry to be able to resume their spring semesters – but not everywhere.
Last Wednesday, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. announced that none of the 214 elementary, middle and high schools under his control, which all have been shut down, will offer any required instruction remotely. This is not because the Philadelphia schools themselves lack the resources to offer required instruction online, although that’s a fluid situation elsewhere, but because Hite does not want them even to try.
None of the thousands of teachers in his district can offer any online education, because of inequity.
“If that’s not available to all children, we cannot make it available to some,” Hite said at a city hall news conference.
One can almost see his point. As long as his schools were open, they were open to any student who could make it to class, to any student who wanted to learn, which is the glory of public education – particularly in a city such as Philadelphia, where about a quarter of the population, about 400,000 residents, lives below the poverty line.
That’s a lot, among the highest proportions for American cities. While the poverty rate for those cities had been falling in recent years, in Philadelphia, it changed little.
In Philadelphia, public education levels some of the inequities. But the same figures suggest three-quarters of all student households are not below the poverty line and likely could accommodate some form of online learning at home. Of about 200,000 Philadelphia district students, 150,000 could needlessly be offered no required education this spring.
Suppose Philadelphia were flooded. And suppose the mayor said some of the most inundated and hard-to-reach areas were the poorest, which would almost make sense – and therefore, the city would not attempt to rescue anyone, because of inequity.
It helps to define the problem. At the moment, what we as a nation and a species are trying to do is mitigate the effects of a pandemic virus. That includes protecting whom we can with the resources we can muster. It means normalizing what we can for others in an extraordinary time.
If we close the schools for the best reasons, we should take the steps we can to see not everyone loses access to required education. But if you think fighting the pandemic comes second to a battle against inequality at large, you risk holding the education of some students hostage to your political ideals, and the value of education cheap. Then you fail.