Coffee heat rising

Changes: After the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

So by now you’ve probably read this morning’s rumination, which reflected on the ambiguities of the drastic changes already foisted on us by the covid-19 pandemic, and the potentially positive changes that seem to be forthcoming. Depending on your point of view.

For each of these possibilities — and make no mistake, the covid epidemic presents as many possibilities as it does roadblocks — there’s a flip side, and that is why it is so important to think through these coming changes carefully.

Among the many disruptions in our economy, our neighborhoods, our families, and our lives, very probably the foremost is the question of what we will do about the continuing education of our young people.

Distance learning is now most popularly effected by a program called Zoom, which allows groups of people to see each other and interact online. Led by a talented and computer-savvy instructor, this approach can certainly be as effective and maybe even superior to face-to-face classroom time. However…

Yes, the ever-present HOWEVER…

I created the first online course in liberal arts at the Great Desert University’s westside campus. I had to build the course’s shell with existing software available online, because of course at that time there were no IT experts in online learning, there was no expensive and elaborate program available to universities, colleges, and high schools, and no one had a clue how to make this stuff work. Or even if it could work. So…I know whereof I speak.

Here is the issue — the big Roof Rat in the Room — when it comes to presenting content and organizing participation in online teaching for public schools: inequity.

Social and economic inequity. Not all kids have access to the same electronic assets.

Some have none at all. Some can access them only through their schools, or at a friend’s house, or at a local library. Not all kids have access to a library, or would know what to do there during the relatively few hours that Phoenix-area libraries are open.

To use a coffee shop’s wireless access, a kid would need to have a portable computer. And if you are a poor kid, yeah, you might have a cheap cell phone…but you’re unlikely to have the kind of hardware and software needed to work effectively on classroom learning. The kid would also have to be able to buy a cup of coffee or tea or a glass of soda to persuade the proprietor to allow an hour or two of yakking on the computer in the coffee shop. Restaurant owners are, after all, not in the charity business.

Even if a grade-school or high-school kid can obtain access to the hardware and connectivity needed to accomplish a day’s worth of schoolwork, she or he may not know how to make that happen. The kid needs to have not only the gadgetry but also the know-how and sophistication to use it. As we old folks know, this is not so hard for young pups who can get their own computers. But if a kid does not have access to a computer and online connectivity — and have it for several hours a day — that kid’s online education isn’t going far.

It’s easy for us to say that the taxpayer will magically make computers available to hordes of hungry little kids (and many of them are hungry: in the Phoenix area large numbers of grade-school kids get their only full meal of the day at their public school). But how do we propose to do that? Where?

If we give each of them  a notebook or a laptop to take home…well.

Have you spent any time in some of lovely Phoenix’s finest slums? A kid who took a computer to an apartment across Conduit of Blight, right next to the ‘Hood, would see that thing gone in a matter of days: stolen by neighbors, family members, or random thieves either for their own use or sold to support drug habits. A child whose parents earn minimum wage (or less, often enough) cannot trot over to the nearest Best Buy or Apple store and pick up another computer.

The only workable solution to that would be to bring low-income kids together in computer classrooms. And that obviates the whole point of keeping the schools closed until a vaccine can be developed and mandated for school-aged kids.

What moving education online will do is further fracture America’s economy and society along racial and income faults. Parents of poor kids will not be able to afford to band together to hire a licensed freelance teacher to coach their children through each day’s schoolwork. In the US, a hefty portion of children living in poverty are minority children: African American and Latina/o. This means the pandemic will push these children even further into disadvantage than they already are…which is quite far enough.

I’m not suggesting here that the changes I described in my earlier post will not happen, or even that they should not happen. Nor am I suggesting that such changes, if implemented well, could not be highly successful.

What I am suggesting is that if we don’t want to set off a social time bomb, every kid will need to have access to the technology, know how to use it, AND be physically safe in using it.

And that, my friends, will be a far bigger order than just sending a building full of kids home to do their schoolwork online.

Probably the pandemic has already set in motion changes that cannot be reversed. If it goes on much longer, that almost certainly will be so. Some of these will be constructive changes, some not.

Some covid changes will be good for certain people but decidedly bad for others. If we don’t want to see the social unrest that will result from that plain fact, we need to address it now, before it happens. Not later.


2 thoughts on “Changes: After the Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. I’d say this was already happening before the pandemic hit this country. A lot of lower income kids do have cell phones and that’s it. There’s ALREADY a tech gap between poor/working class and middle/upper class kids.
    From my own experiences growing up, I’d say that most poor/working class parents don’t encourage their kids to study and make good grades to get into college. I remember the attitude as being, “It’s all I can do to feed these kids and keep a roof over our heads. College is for rich people. Also, if they go to college, they might start thinking they’re better than me. Oh, Hell, no!” Something tells me that viewpoint really hasn’t changed much over the decades.
    Also, what about latchkey kids? I was one from age 11 to 15. It didn’t help that I hated school. Mom worked nights in a factory and spent a lot of off time sleeping. I remember her telling me once not to flunk out. That’s it. No asking me about homework or checking it, encouraging me, etc. Surely she was/is not the only parent in the Western world with that attitude.

  2. Your mom must have felt dead exhausted during most of her waking hours. That wouldn’t leave very much psychological or social capital to invent and pass along new values that she probably didn’t pick up from her own parents.

    Part of the problem with the “college is for rich people” is that the issue is not exclusive to the kids’ parents. Too often counselors, teachers, coaches, and even employers of high-school age kids assume that if you came from a laboring-class family (if you had an intact family at all), you’re not college-bound. This is where we wander into the thickets of race, class, & gender.

    Personally, I see the challenge as more heavily determined by race and social class than gender, in this century. Students of both genders (and any in between) too often find their futures predetermined by their family’s affluence (or lack thereof), their family’s native language, their family’s education, and their family’s structure.

    Two of my friends — SDXB (who is about my age) and La Maya (who is a little younger, but still pushing retirement now) — encountered these issues with a vengeance. SDXB is white and majorly working class. Even though he was so smart that in high school he would do all the semester’s assignments in the first week or two and sell the answers to his classmates (!), it was assumed that when he graduated OF COURSE he would go to work in the town’s body shop. Teachers assumed this, counselors assumed it, parents assumed it, friends assumed it, and of course the guy who owned the town body shop assumed it. He ran away and joined the Air Force. Once there, the personnel guys proposed to put him to work in the base body shop; he declined and talked them into putting him in a career track toward journalism (which in those days did not necessarily require a B.A.). He became a multi-award-winning investigative reporter.

    La Maya is unnervingly smart and outrageously hard-working, and the child of immigrant agricultural laborers. The parents, we might add, were outrageously hard-working, too. She also had to overcome the assumption, on the part of school officials, that of course she would grow up to be someone’s wife working on someone’s assembly line. She made her way, against the current, to UC Berkeley and is now a tenured university professor.

    These accomplishments must have been astonishing for both sets of parents. Pretty much you just hope your kids will manage to make it through to adulthood somehow, especially if most of your energy is occupied in keeping food on their table and a roof over their heads.

    My parents never expected me to be anything other than someone’s wife and the mother of his kids. BUT they encouraged me to go to college,not because they believed I would ever accomplish my goal of becoming an astrophysicist (fat chance, in the early 1960s!) but because they felt that my best shot at a middle-class life was to marry a college man. That’s what a woman did: she married a man, raised his children, and took care of the family and the house. Any “jobs” were just a distraction, and God help her if circumstances dictated that she HAD to take a job to put bread on the table. My mother’s family was more middle-class — there were educated people on her mother’s side, and they were admired for their education and their earning power. My father’s family was solidly working-class: he dropped out of high school, lied about his age, and joined the Navy to avoid having to spend the rest of his life watching the rear ends of cows. Like SDXB, he seems never to have had any real encouragement in his ambition to escape the working class — he had to do it on his own.

    Doing that on your own, then as now, would have been a Herculean effort.

    At any rate, back to the question of how might brick-&-mortar public schools be side-lined (or side-stepped) as a result of the covid fiasco: I can imagine that if middle-class parents could hire certified teachers to tutor small groups of kids in the online environment, then government entities could do the same thing. They could convert the existing school buildings into computer labs & vocational training facilities, with hardware allowing kids to spend a few hours a day on Zoom, overseen by a teacher or two. This would provide time, space, and equipment for kids whose parents couldn’t afford the indulgence of a private tutor or couldn’t take time off work to tutor them at home.

    Would this be good for the kids? I dunno. Dying of covid or bringing it home to kill Granma couldn’t be very good for them, either… It would depend on how the project was done. And given human nature, the risk of reinforcing race and class boundaries would be huge.

Comments are closed.