Education Equity: Learning Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Laetitia Haddad '20

Every student has prayed for a snow day, an early release, a three day weekend, a senior skip day, or Spring Break. The monotony of classes becomes stifling after a while as pressure builds up and procrastination abounds. A moment to slow down and take a breath is desperately needed. And yet, every student knows that school is inherently much more than classes and  dreaded assessments. Despite wishing for some time off, students recognize that school means community and friends, traditions and opportunities, growth and connections. To many American students, school means meals, care, and a safe place. So, what happens when school is shut — indefinitely?

Within the US, there are 132,853 K-12 schools ranging from public to private institutions. The Coronavirus Pandemic has affected each of them to some extent. Schools bring students from many communities together in classrooms and at events. As a result, schools facilitate the spread of illness, as seen time and again with recurring sicknesses like the flu and strep throat. COVID-19 has an incubation period of 1 to 14 days, and many infected can be asymptomatic. The nature of this virus makes it very difficult to track. In an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, many schools around the nation have been shut down by their state governments. 

What happens next? Locally, Distance Learning is a tool implemented by public and private schools alike to maintain a standard of education while students and teachers are socially distanced from one another. Students at SSSAS are familiar with our school’s approach to Distance Learning, which is being carried out on our Lower, Middle, and Upper School campuses. Mr. Mallett, Director of the Upper School, remarks that despite our best efforts, “nothing can replace the important personal connections that are such an important part of learning. It just isn't the same during Distance Learning.” 

A study published by Preventive Medicine Reports in 2018 notes a correlation between increased screen time for children between the ages of 2 and 17 and lower well-being, manifesting in lower self-control, less curiosity, and a lack of emotional stability. While we are lucky to have access to connectivity and education through technology, it is important to note the toll an increase in screen reliance can have on our mental state. 

Teachers at SSSAS have made a tremendous effort to quickly adapt to Distance Learning protocol. Mr. Mallett notes that students “feel positive about how the teachers are working hard to provide a continuity of the academic experience” in the given situation. Certain adjustments have also been made to accommodate important academic testing like AP placement for the coming school year. Online, Mr. Mallett states that “the course enrollment process [began] on April 13. As has been the case in the past, the Department Chairs are taking the lead on the application process for AP classes”. For students currently enrolled in AP classes, the College Board has altered the length and format of all exams. Usually administered over the course of May on paper at specific times and locations, these three hour exams are now 45 minutes and online. 

While many seniors feel like they are missing out the most, many juniors are worried about the effect COVID-19 will have on their upcoming college process. With the April ACT and May SAT cancelled, juniors feel as though they are falling behind. However, universities are adapting. At least 17 institutions have dropped SAT or ACT scores as application requirements. Furthermore, the College Board has mentioned the possibility of offering the SAT online as an at-home test in order to meet the needs of students applying to college. 

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is the largest public school system in the state of Virginia, and the 10th largest district in the country. It serves over 185,000 students ranging from K-12. Ms. Criswell (wife of SSSAS teacher Dr. Criswell) is a French teacher who works at an FCPS Middle School which caters 2,000 students. “We officially began distance learning on April 14,” Ms. Criswell details, which was a month after FCPS closed on March 13. “FCPS has run into some technical snags regarding the access to BlackBoard (on which our work is posted) and BlackBoard Collaborate for the chats.” FCPS serves a much larger community than SSSAS, and as a result, it is much more difficult to equitably and efficiently implement Distance Learning measures. Ms. Criswell states that “on the Thursday before FCPS closed, my school asked our students to fill out a questionnaire in order to find out who would be in need of a laptop and internet if we were to close. We closed unexpectedly the next day, and the questionnaires had not been completed.” 

Disparities in access to technology are evident all over the United States. Nationally, 1.3 million homeless students attend public schools, and 30 million students in the public school system rely on these institutions for breakfast and lunch. In rural and low-income communities, broadband internet and devices like phones and laptops are not readily available, further complicating Distance Learning efforts. Ms. Criswell is aware of these circumstances in her school, and says that “we will not be teaching live online… no synchronous learning. As not all of our students have the technology at home to participate in synchronous learning, we do not want to deliver live online lessons in which these students will miss out.” Instead, Ms. Criswell is using her 45-minute class time slot to answer questions and go over work. 

In an interview, Mr. Mazur (husband of SSSAS teacher Ms. Mazur), principal at George Washington Middle School here in Alexandria, touched on equity amid the ongoing pandemic. “One of our biggest challenges right now is identifying students who haven’t yet accessed their instruction,” Mr. Mazur explains. “That’s a really important data point for us: if there are students who don’t have internet, they are in need of far greater social services. It could be within an immigrant community or a socio-economically depressed community.” 

Amid this health crisis, equity in education appears in different forms. Each child’s scenario at home is varied. A student could have special needs, be an English Language Learner, or live in an especially vulnerable community. The Department of Education released a memo regarding education during the Pandemic, highlighting that educators must shift from the mindset of teaching “all children” to “each child.” 

This pandemic has violently shaken the economy of this country, rendering 22 million unemployed. Mr. Mazur acknowledges that students and their families may be “devastated by this closure of businesses and jobs. When your life is already very challenging, this is a whole new traumatic event that’s impacting you. As a school system, we have to be very empathetic towards that.” 

Distance Learning is not a priority for all students, some of whom are facing financial insecurity and hunger in the wake of the closure of the economy. But schools have always been about more than just classrooms and worksheets — schools are about community, and community is needed now more than ever. Efforts have been made by schools to meet the needs of their student body. The Alexandria City Public School System is delivering emergency meals to any child under 18 and their family for free. Similar aid has been implemented by other districts in the DMV, some providing hot meal pickups from various locations. Mr. Mazur states that “we use our resources, like social workers and guidance counselors, to reach these students in need.” 

At her Middle School, Ms. Criswell observed, “a number of counselors, teachers and support staff spent time telephoning hundreds of parents to ask what their technology needs were. Among those making the calls were teachers who spoke Spanish and Arabic as my school has a large immigrant population.” After collecting this data, the school handed out laptops to families in need for two weeks. On a national level, Comcast and Cox Communications are providing free internet access for 30 or more days to low income families with a K-12 student. 

Schools have climbed a steep learning curve in the past month, adapting to a health crisis with profound effects on every aspect of our society. These institutes of learning and community have translated their compassion through the wavelengths of technology, reaching out to students and families near and far. This is no easy task. However, these essential lessons of resilience and empathy are of utmost value amidst this time of great uncertainty and loss.