Can Public Education Survive COVID-19?

May 22, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted apartheid conditions in US public schools.

The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted apartheid conditions in US public schools.


NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 17: A hallway is empty on what would otherwise be a school day as teachers and faculty members learn remote teaching and methods for students at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Jaisal Noor: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Jess Lenore. The COVID-19 outbreak is up ended life as we know it. And one of the places it’s having the greatest impact, that’s received less attention than it deserves, is public education. Teaching that was once done in a classroom has been moved online. While this transition poses challenges for all students and educators, the impact is most extreme in school districts where public policy has created wealth and opportunity gaps across racial and class lines.

Well now joining us to discuss this are two guests who have been studying this closely, Khalilah Harris is the managing director for K-12 Education Policy at the Center for American Progress. And Rebecca Jacobsen is associate professor at Michigan State University. Thank you both for joining us.

Khalilah Harris: Thank you.

Rebecca Jacobse…: Thank you.

Jaisal Noor: So Khalilah, we’ll start with you. You live here in Baltimore and we know that that’s one of the districts with some of the most extreme inequality. A recent study found that 40% of Baltimore public school students lack devices to access the internet or broadband access. What kind of impact is that going to have on education? A lot of wealthier families and households, lacking broadband access and lack of internet devices is not something that they have to worry about or have to think about.

Khalilah Harris: There are a number of critical issues that those statistics tell us. One of the 60% of students who have access to devices is the quality of instruction, such that they will continue learning and not experience deeper gaps in opportunity. For the students who don’t have devices or having to share devices in a household with a number of siblings. Or a parent who’s trying to work, you really have a situation where we will see impact for a decade or more.

Because you have a set of young people who even if they were motivated to learn, even if they were excited about schooling, now are having to figure out how to even access schools. The other piece of that is with that 40% of students, and depending on the data we have for those families, some of those students may be in crisis. Some of those students may be English language learners. Some of those students may be students with disabilities. And the question begets why are they not having access to their services? When will they get access to their services?

And in what ways can the school district ramp up to make sure every child who’s on their role is accounted for? Because there’s also the issue of increased domestic violence, increased reports of suicide, increased reports of child abuse at this time. Let me take a step back, actually decrease in reports of child abuse, which is extremely troubling. It means that young people are experiencing things behind closed doors due to stay at home orders that no one can see. And oftentimes the school would be the reporter if they saw abuse. So 40% is unacceptable. It’s a huge number.

So there are two issues there. One is the 40% who don’t have access to the devices or broadband. The other issue is of the 60%, how many of those students have actually connected with the school system? And that’s true across the country as well. There are a number of superintendents and state chiefs who are reporting districts where 40, 50% of the students have not been in contact with the district. And that is troubling. You could have a student who’s really interested in school, but their parents lost their job. They’ve had to pick up and move suddenly. That is really going to be a crisis that we’re dealing with long beyond finding a vaccination or developing a herd immunity.

Jaisal Noor: And Rebecca, I wanted to ask you to weigh in on that question. What concerns you most about this situation?

Rebecca Jacobse…: I couldn’t agree more with what Khalilah has already shared. I think that I share those same exact concerns. So I just want to add on to what she said. I think one of the issues that we also have to consider is the level of stress that kids are experiencing. We certainly know that when you are stressed, it is much harder to process information. It’s much harder to learn. It’s harder to take in new information. So even for the best case scenario where students are highly motivated and have access, we have an added level of stress. Especially in disinvested communities where parents jobs are now unstable. Parents jobs are unpredictable, and there can be no doubt that there’s higher levels of stress in the household that the children are experiencing.

I’d also say we need to think about the quality of instruction. So even if kids are able to get online, and able to log in and participate, I don’t think that what we currently have comes anywhere near to replacing the kinds of learning interactions that take place in real time. Where students do something, they get immediate feedback and can make those corrections. Teachers have a relationship with kids. They know how to motivate them. All of those things are lost in this online virtual format.

Jaisal Noor: And Khalilah, I wanted to ask you about Baltimore specifically. What have you heard? I know you’re involved with groups that are advocating on behalf of students, parents, and teachers here. I’ve heard good stories. I’ve heard some good and bad, but talk about what you’ve heard and what sense you have on how things are going right now in Baltimore.

Khalilah Harris: It’s really tough. I’ve been in contact with the leaders of the Parent and Community Advisory Board. They are trying their hardest to make sure they have up to date information from both the school board and the CEO back to Santa Lisa’s has been extremely engaging and in close contact and updating them regularly. And more than regularly. So that’s great to hear. The challenges if there are students without access to broadband and technology at a rate of 40%, you also have that number of families who may not be hearing anything from the school district or not sure how to support their students.

Also want to think about not only are the stress of the children, but the stress of the educators. And so the idea of not only many, if not most of them not being trained to deliver a distance learning model. That they are now thrust in front of a camera, allowing access into their homes in a way that they may have wanted to protect before as much as they love their children. And asking those people to bridge divides that were not created by them that were instead created by systemic inequity.

So we have heard from Santa Lisa’s to say that there was a high percentage of students, somewhere around 80%, who started coursework when distance learning began. That slowly but surely began to fade away. So you have teachers with one student, three students, five students reporting here in Baltimore. I hear the same things around the country. So this is not unique to Baltimore City, but it is a stressful situation. You do have teachers that I talked to who are extremely concerned again about abuse and students who they knew were in volatile living situations. We have a high number of students in Baltimore City who are either experiencing homelessness or living in foster care.

And so the question becomes, what kind of supports are those children having? And then you have students who were in a juvenile justice situation or in a juvenile detention situation who we’re due to come back to school or back home.And there’s a break in a linkage between they’re returned to home or they’re returned to school. I must say also the same is true for young people who might have been suspended from school long term or even short term. What was put in place to bridge their supports that they would’ve gotten if school were back in session. It might’ve been a 30 day plan to get them back on track and moving along with their classmates. Did any of that happen?

And those are some of the things that go unseen because it’s not in an IEP or it’s not in a support plan for English language learners. So we definitely are seeing parents and families rallying around their children, I must say. The other day I was able to view a concert from Orkid and those amazing young people learning to play instruments were able to display their talents in what would have been normally their presentations at this point in the school year.

I was able to participate in Lilly May, Caroll Jackson’s eighth grade presentations of learning. Which is a rite of passage for students in an expeditionary learning school model. So I’ve been interacting with educators from across the city who are trying to maintain the semblance of normalcy and rigor and quality for their students. The challenge is when you live in communities that have been disinvested for so long, you have teachers who are in many ways bearing the brunt of closing gaps in opportunity for young people all over the city instead of just in their classrooms.

Jaisal Noor: And Rebecca, I wanted to build off that, but also ask you during the great recession, our previous economic hardships that we faced a decade ago. Many States cut education funding. And part of that is because we fund schools in this country based on property taxes. Which creates systemic inequities and what wealthier districts get then districts that have less wealth. Can you build off what clueless saying, but also talk about if you’re concerned. I think we already did already talk about school budgets being cut. Now in wake of this what impact did that have especially for districts that already are under-resourced?

Rebecca Jacobse…: Yeah. And the reference to the previous crisis in 2007, 2008 is really important. Because when we look back at the cuts that took place, even after our economy rebounded, and there was more money. We never caught up. Those were districts that had been disinvested actually never caught up. They ended up even further behind. I think that this is going to be an even more severe example of that happening when we make big cuts.

And it is those communities with the least amount of investment, the least internal resources to draw upon who then cannot simply make up the difference. Whereas those communities that have the resources either make up those differences publicly through increased taxes or privately with parents making donations to their personal schools. Parents making donations to the classrooms that their students are in. So there’s many more opportunities to make up those differences.

And when we see the public cuts, it’s really those least able to make up the difference who suffer the most. I think we’re going to end up even further behind and exacerbate the inequality that we already have. I also wanted to mention, I’m really glad that Khalilah has said several times now the importance of the number of kids that are just simply no longer being seen. And I think that is a real concern that has not received nearly enough attention.

As a foster parent and now an adoptive parent from the foster care system, I know extremely intimately what it’s like to work with children that have experienced abuse. I think when kids go back into the shool system, not only will teachers be facing those gaps from learning, but they’re going to have a lot more students that have high levels of trauma. And we are not providing our teachers. We’re not equipping them with the resources, the support and the training that they need to work with traumatized children.

And until we work with their emotional wellbeing, we’ll never be able to continue to push forward and meet their ability in an academic setting.

Jaisal Noor: And Khalilah, I wanted to get you to weigh in on that, but I know that when you were at The Real News, we worked together on covering The Kirwan Commission. Which was this historic education plans, or revamp public schools across the State of Maryland. Which has a huge deficit in terms of what resources wealthier… We have some of the wealthiest districts, an entire country. Well, we also have, you know, areas that have been greatly disinvested like Baltimore.

Essentially our governor Larry Hogan, who was opposed this since its inception, as we all know. He vetoed it basically saying that we can’t raise taxes during this pandemic. And that was the reason he gave. I wanted to get your response.

Khalilah Harris: First of all, I want to reiterate that 50% of the States who cut education funding never returned up until last year to pre-recession funding. In Maryland was one of those States. Okay. So it’s not just a couple of States or a few States. Half of the States never returned to pre-recession funding from the 2007, 2008 recession period. Larry Hogan said before the legislative session ended that he would veto the carbon bill. That he was not for it.

Larry Hogan had a $20,000 a plate fundraisers to get money to build a campaign against The Kirwan Commission. As the numbers started to roll out for what it would cost to provide quality education per Maryland’s constitution for Maryland’s children. So at the end of the legislative session, which was truncated because of the pandemic, the current bill passed through the legislature. There was an amendment added in there that said if state receipts fell below seven and a half percent, which they absolutely will.

It’s being projected that Maryland’s receipts will be 15 to 20% lower. And that’s tax receipts collection of revenues to support the government. There was no reason for him to veto the legislation with that amendment in place. So sometimes he will do smoke and mirrors where he’ll say, “I support education. I’m the education governor.” But there’s no real evidence of it. He talked about the lockbox for the casino money as if he put forward the lockbox.

And that was actually democratic members in the legislature. Then he campaigned for governor on being the education governor through this lockbox just because he simply allowed the bill to pass. So it’s really unfortunate. This had the potential to be an astronomical improvement on the quality of education for all of Maryland students. The state legislature now has the question in front of them on whether or not they call a special meeting so that we can do a couple of things.

Overturn his veto of the current legislation. Overturn his veto of the HBCUs legislation to settle that case. Overturn his legislation related to women having access to post-incarceration facilities. There are so many things that he regressively veto and said that it was because of his unwillingness to raise taxes. But again, throughout that period, he was saying he would do that. I’m also a senior fellow with the Maryland Center on economics and budget.

We talk a lot about all of the ways he could have supported closing corporate loopholes in the tax code, as well as focusing on the 1%. The 1% still is able to pay more taxes because they’re not being impacted in the way the rest of us are. It’s unfortunate. I think he’s played this role of a moderate Republican. He’s in no way more moderate when it comes to the policies that he tends to pass. And it’s really going to be up to our legislature to stand up and say, “We will not allow the current commission legislation to die based on a veto.”

We need to override that and make sure that we are putting our money where I’m out this for our children. And in fact, now the time to really double down on equity. When we’re in a situation like this where so many communities are continuing to be impacted and gaps in opportunity are growing. Now’s not the time to pull away from equity. Equity has to be at the center and the front end, not an add on. Which is how we find ourselves here to begin with.

Jaisal Noor: Well, I want to thank you both for joining us. We’re still early in this pandemic. We didn’t even know what the full impacts are. And as you both raise the issue of the students that no one has heard from for months. So there’s something we’re going to definitely keep following up on. And also talk about what solutions look like and what we can all do to help make public education a more just institution in this country.

Khalilah Harris, managing director at K-12 Education Policy cap Center for American Progress. And Rebecca Jacobson associate professor at Michigan State University. Thank you both for joining us.

Khalilah Harris: Thank you.

Rebecca Jacobse…: Thank you.

Jaisal Noor: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.