by Dr. Terry Stoops
A Union County teacher recently declared, “This might be rude, but I don’t care about parent child care issues. That should not be a valid reason for opening schools. #ihave3”
Of the 367 comments to that Facebook post, a sizable majority agreed.
“It’s time to hold parents accountable for raising the children they decided to have. School should never have been implied child care,” responded a Kannapolis City Schools teacher.
“We are not babysitters although we are treated like one,” opined a former North Carolina educator now teaching in Georgia.
As I have written previously, it is understandable why educators want school boards to adopt full-time remote learning plans for the upcoming school year. It is the only plan that guarantees the safety of more than 185,000 adults and approximately 1.5 million children in public schools. They fear that any form of in-person learning will subject school employees, particularly those who are older or immunocompromised, to unnecessary risks. Teachers recognize that children will struggle with social distancing practices, wearing masks, strict sanitation routines, and other coronavirus mitigation measures mandated by state agencies.
On the other hand, no one should tolerate teachers who dismiss the legitimate concerns of working parents who worry about their ability to accommodate one-size-fits-all school reopening plans. Parental concerns are every bit as legitimate as those voiced by educators.
Consider the frustration of parents who 1) waited months for Gov. Roy Cooper to announce his school reopening plan; 2) subsequently selected an in-person or hybrid instructional option offered by the district or school; and 3) then just weeks before the start of the school year were told that all children would be compelled to use remote learning for, at minimum, several weeks.
These were not isolated incidents. According to Keung Hui of the News & Observer, at least 29 school districts and 15 charter schools, representing around 40% of all public school students, have imposed full-time remote learning on families. Others may follow suit in the coming weeks.
Make no mistake about it. Working families are victims here, and their anger is justified. And the plight of teachers is nothing compared to the hardships that some of our most disadvantaged populations will encounter when their school districts and charter schools initiate full-time remote learning plans in August.
Single parent households. According to Carolina Demography, 22.2% of North Carolina households with children are headed by a single mother, and 8.1% of households with children are headed by a single father. When their children are assigned to schools that adopt a full-time remote learning model, single-parent households have limited options. A privileged few can afford to enroll their children in a private or charter school that has adopted an in-person or hybrid instructional plan. Some may have the flexibility to work from home. Stills others will need to rely on the goodwill of churches, businesses, civic organizations, and family members to oversee remote learning, provide child care, and supply other needs during the school day. Many others may be forced to take more drastic measures.
Rural and low-income communities. In an April presentation to the N.C. House Select Committee on COVID-19, director of the state’s Broadband Infrastructure Office Jeff Sural estimated that more than 197,000 households have a school-age child but no internet access. Schools are aware that limited access to devices and services is a persistent barrier to remote learning, so many have given parents the option of obtaining paper copies of assignments. Others have purchased more devices or set up wifi hotspots. But these efforts may widen the achievement gap.
In an Opportunity Insights/Harvard University study of an online math platform used by many elementary school students, researchers found that “Children in high-income areas experience a temporary reduction in learning on this platform when the COVID crisis hit, but soon recover to baseline levels; by contrast, children in lower-income areas remain 50% below baseline levels persistently.” This study reinforces previous research that concludes that online learning may exacerbate inequalities across income groups.
Disadvantaged families. The National Center for Children with Poverty reports that nearly half of children in North Carolina live in low-income families. How will parents who barely make enough to meet their most basic needs navigate a full-time remote learning plan that requires extensive parental supervision? Most disadvantaged families are in no position simply to forgo their meager income to do so. Nor do they have sufficient access to educational options that would better meet the needs of their families. Consider, too, how full-time remote learning plans disproportionally affect children of color. According to the NCCP, 66% of black children, 75% of Hispanic children, and 59% of American Indian children in North Carolina live in low-income families.
Homeless students. Brenda Berg of BestNC is one of the few who have challenged others to consider the potentially devastating effects of school building closures and full-time remote learning plans on the thousands of homeless students enrolled in North Carolina public schools. According to a January 2020 study published by the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, close to 29,000 homeless students were enrolled in North Carolina public schools in 2018, a nearly 10% increase from 2016. As COVID-19 shutdowns continue to take a heavy toll on North Carolina’s economy, I fear that the number of homeless children will continue to increase.
This may be the most critical social justice issue of our time. Who will fight for homeless students and disadvantaged families whose lives will be debilitated by the demands of full-time remote learning plans? Perhaps a more important question: Is anyone listening to them?
Dr. Terry Stoops is vice president of research and director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation.