This is an opinion column.
“That’s life now, right, Mr. Johnson?”, the kid said.
“It is,” I replied.
The kid is a local middle-schooler, a regular in my afternoon workouts. He was being cordial, politely asking me how I was handling the months of isolation, social distancing, masks. The months of angst and uncertainty.
That’s life now.
For all of us, for our children, our sons and daughters, from preschoolers to collegians. Call them Gen-Corona, or the COVID Kids. All of them still forming, still evolving, still digesting the global pandemic that has disrupted and twisted their young lives. That has obliterated how (and where) they learn.
Maybe even if they learn.
You’re of a certain age (ahem) if you recall the school air-raid drills during the heights of the Cold War in the 1960s. We scurried under desks or cowered on the floor in the hallway with our head tucked between our knees. It was supposed to save us if the Soviet Union began dropping bombs from the skies.
My own children were among the generation of students impacted by the massacre of 12 students and a teacher by two seniors at Columbine High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999. After that horror, and the spate of school shootings that still pierce parents’ hearts with fear, students everywhere practiced how to respond to shots fired at their school. They practiced how to stay alive.
Those threats didn’t change how (and where) they learned. Or if they learned.
Not like this damn virus, which yanked students from their classrooms, hallways, playground, and playing fields last March. To keep them, their teachers, and their families alive.
We’re sending them back now. Some of them.
While trying to educate all of them. Differently.
Better, hopefully. More equitably, hopefully. With more inclusivity and honesty, hopefully.
Our most immediate concern is keeping those students returning to the classroom, their teachers and administrators, and their families healthy. And alive.
Early indicators, from districts already opened to waves of students, are not particularly encouraging. Almost 1,200 students and staffers in one Georgia district, which opened on August 3, are already quarantined. This week two of the district’s high school shut down. Now-famous Paulding High, where a student earlier this month posted a photo of a crowded hallway of nearly all unmasked students, reported nine positive tests for COVID-19. Several people in Mississippi’s Corinth School District tested positive, according to the local health official, resulting in more than 100 people landing in quarantine.
Seven thousand of our children between the ages of 5-17 have tested positive for the coronavirus since March, the Alabama Department of Public Health revealed this week—about 7% of the 101,000+ cases in the state.
And doors have yet to open at most of our schools.
The long-term, transformational effects this disruptive moment in our education system? It’ll likely be years, probably more than a decade, before we know. Before we may discern the ultimate impact of this kick in the pants on our children. On how they learn. Or if they learn.
Our system, frankly, needed a whuppin’.
It wasn’t working for every child. Hardly any child.
Not in a state where the governor once said education “sucked” because we ranked 51st in a nation with 50 states.
Not in a state where too few children are reading on grade-level, but being passed along as if in the checkout line at Wal-Mart.
Just like our health care system, COVID-19 exposed and amplified long-ignored education disparities in our state, in our lives, when students were sent home. Some to homes with good wireless networks to power their laptops and tablets to facilitate a relatively smooth transition to digital learning. To learning.
Some to homes with nary a book, let alone a laptop, tablet, or access to a viable wireless network. With access to the basics — basics many households take for granted – needed to learn now.
Maybe from now on. Just to learn.
Some of us have been talking about the digital divide since digital became a thing. Now, one-third of the nation’s homes still don’t have digital access. COVID-19 forced us to do something about it.
In March, districts statewide had to face their deficiencies head-on — like going outside to get a switch — to ensure students already behind did not fall further behind. To ensure they didn’t languish so far back they might never catch up.
So, they scrambled. Some utilized now-empty school buses as hot spots in wireless deserts in the Black Belt and various urban pockets of neglect. (Translation: poor neighborhoods)
In late July, Gov. Kay Ivey slated $100 million from the CARES Act windfall to facilitate digital access for students learning virtually when school starts. It was a good start.
In Birmingham, the school board estimated 7.500 families with students in the school system did not have digital access. It voted this summer to spend $2.7 million over two years for digital plans for BCS households (through T-Mobile) and earlier allocated $10 million to buy computers for students. Board members call the service plan a “lifeline” for students and teachers.
On Friday, the Housing Authority Birmingham Division’s Board of Commissioners approved $495,000 for Wi-Fi infrastructure in its public housing communities, with about 3,400 students, HABD estimates. It also approved spending $150,000 for 500 computers.
I’m not naïve. This spending won’t eradicate decades of disparities and inequities in an education system that was serving no one well. That was leaving too many students behind.
Hopefully, though, it provides relatively equitable access to the basics, basics too long ignored.
Hopefully, it’s life now. A new life.
A voice for what’s right and wrong in Birmingham, Alabama (and beyond), Roy’s column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as in the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at twitter.com/roysj