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.