The pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities for the education system and our overall infrastructure and laid bare what we already knew about the divide among those with advantages and those in poverty. Children of poverty have less access to opportunities, and we don’t need test scores to determine where schools and their students struggle — schools with more children of poverty experience less success than those with fewer children of poverty.
North Carolina is also not a state with a surplus supply of licensed teachers; we still rely on importing teachers from other states to work in hard-to-staff schools. We should be aware of two predictable challenges as we reopen schools and avoid tempting solutions that may not be in our best interests.
Pitfall 1: During the pandemic, children who have access to the internet and adults at home who have helped them to remain engaged and active in learning will likely be ready. They have participated in Zoom sessions with teachers, taken advantage of the increasing education resource base online of video lessons, skill development programs, exploration activities and guides for parents. They have had adults who have the time, education and wherewithal to provide stimulating and educational experiences. They are clearly at an advantage over those who lack similar access to the internet and adults at home to teach and facilitate learning.
Children with increased needs such as those eligible for special education and those not yet fluent in English may also be behind some of their more advantaged peers. How will we try to educate them in the reopening of brick-and-mortar schools? Let’s avoid asking more of them and their families because they may need more. They are victims of the circumstances and should not be treated like being “behind” is their choice. Let’s accept them where they are without assigning blame and asking them to “work harder” to make up for what they missed. Sure, we should provide them with opportunities to succeed like educators are inclined to do, but let’s not blame them for not having internet, for not having adults with ample resources to teach and guide them, for having a disability or for not being fluent in English. It’s not their fault; take them as they are and give them all we have to help them succeed.
Pitfall 2: The second pitfall concerns what to do when the supply of well-qualified teachers is tight or runs dry as educators either contract the virus or are unwilling to risk exposure. Students and educators will continue to contract COVID-19 until we have an effective and available vaccine. What will we do when teachers get the virus? It was already difficult for some schools to find substitutes before the pandemic. It will be more difficult to find qualified and trained substitutes during the pandemic, when expectations and risks are increased.
There is likely to be a temptation in desperate times to waive our standards for hiring teachers. Let’s not accept any “warm-bodied” individual to educate our children. We now have highly trained professionals, albeit undercompensated, who showed in the last third of the past school year that they can pivot on a dime and still provide education. Let’s plan to keep up the momentum when schools reopen and some of these professionals get sick.
Retirees who are often part of the substitute teacher pool may not be willing to risk exposure. Schools are likely already planning to use school administrators who are in most cases successful and experienced teachers, but that is not a big group. Let’s train more teachers, increase the pay and develop a plan to staff classrooms with the best possible educators and not rely on unprepared adults to care for and teach our most precious resource — our children — when they need us most.
Dale Carpenter is a professor of special education and former dean of the College of Education and Allied Professions at Western Carolina University.