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Closed schools are spreading the epidemic of educational inequality

SHARE Closed schools are spreading the epidemic of educational inequality

Ali Duff, a third grade teacher who chose to go to work despite classes being canceled, walks through a darkened hallway at Upland Terrace Elementary School in Millcreek on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. The school was closed due to a partial power outage.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

As an advocate for those without a voice among decision-makers, it’s my duty to warn against the costs of not opening school doors this fall. I fear that many of the English-speaking, housing-stable, well-nourished and well-connected individuals who are deciding how or whether to open Salt Lake City schools are unaware of the gross inequality exacerbated by keeping them closed. 

For a decade, I have worked and volunteered as an advocate among the poor, most recently in the Salt Lake City School District as a student and family support specialist. To simplify the title, my job was to find suffering students and throw them a lifeline. 

Before schools were dismissed in March, I was based at East High where 64% of students live below the federal poverty line, including 90 students who self-reported as homeless. Many of our students received two meals a day at school and took home groceries to feed their siblings at night. Parents made appointments to shop in our pantry for fresh food. We gave out immeasurable amounts of donated clothing — everything from socks and underwear, to business wear, to prom dresses. We intervened to find shelter for our homeless kids. We contacted dentists to fill cavities, collaborated with orthodontists to correct severely misaligned jaws, and made myriad doctor’s appointments, even finding cancer treatment for two uninsured children. We provided laptops, bus passes, counseling, laundry services and shower facilities.

Then COVID-19 came, and it all stopped.

With schools closed, the Salt Lake District moved all its resources to three community centers and centralized efforts at those locations. These efforts, while well-intentioned, can’t begin to address the struggles of the many families who are no longer gathered into schools for support. 

Not only do school closures deprive vulnerable students of many life-sustaining needs, they deprive them of the education that is their mandate. Online schoolwork can be a challenge for any student, but families in poverty face many additional barriers to distance learning. Without a classroom to safely care for their children, many working parents are forced to depend on older siblings. These kids become surrogate parents and sometimes never return to school. I’ve seen this happen even in good years and it’s always a tragedy.

Other parents struggle without steady employment due to COVID-19’s impact on the economy. These families confront food and housing insecurity that consumes their time and distracts from any other pursuits. Many refugee parents don’t speak English or Spanish and therefore can’t understand communications from the district, nor can they advocate for their children. Digital classes leave them scrambling to keep up with verbal instructions.

I helped several such students with their online schoolwork in the spring. One seventh grade boy couldn’t read above a first grade level and gave up easily on the indecipherable assignments. His teacher instructed him just to focus on finishing a single class. He was only able to complete about 20% by the time school ended in June. A freshman at Highland was reading at a third grade level but was assigned at-home labs on Mendelian genetics and gave up completely. She understood nothing, not even the word “genetics”. A boy in third grade, who still didn’t understand subtraction, was asked to dabble in pre-algebra. He quit logging in after a few weeks of frustration, yet he was advanced to the fifth grade.

I fear that another term of online learning will knock these students yet another rung beneath their peers, many of whom are fortunate enough to study successfully at home under the tutelage of college-educated and/or multigenerational American parents. 

The most important function of public schools is to ensure that every child has a place at the common table of opportunities. This hope still calls many across our borders and energizes our nation. Free public education is the open door out of poverty. This escape must not shut for a whole generation of children.

I warn that if school doors remain closed, this epidemic of educational inequality will widen and have a devastating impact on the future of our most vulnerable students. I understand the risks of COVID-19 must be managed. The protection of health and life is of indisputable importance. But it’s also essential to calculate the costs.

Jessica Guynn is on the board of trustees at the Road Home and the Board of Circles Salt Lake, an organization that help impoverished families become economically self-sufficient through mentorship. Last year, she was employed by SLCSD as a student and family support specialist at East High School. She is also the foster parent of two and the mother of four.