The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare Pa.’s education inequities. Here’s what to do next | Opinion

By Andrea Custis

COVID-19 has impacted our economy in an unprecedented manner, not just locally, but nationally and internationally, grabbing many news headlines, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, with less fanfare, COVID has brought light to gaps in our education system.

COVID-19 brought myriad business closures. Employees were forced to work from home and schools shut the doors and sent students home. The impact of these closings has been significant. Teachers have to develop plans to deliver remote lessons.

Parents have to plan for daily childcare, a real challenge for single parents or those who still work every day, like healthcare and public transit workers.

It is especially difficult for low-income parents, who now have more mouths to feed in addition to themselves. Children are home indefinitely, robbing them of the social interactions with friends or family that help physical and emotional development.

This shift has laid bare systemic inequities. A 2019 School District of Philadelphia study found that only 52 percent of Philadelphia public school students in grades three to twelve had home internet access, including only 45 percent of grades three to five. Only 46 percent of black students and 44 percent of Hispanic students had home internet access.

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Black and Hispanic students comprise seven in ten public school students. Median household income in the Philadelphia School District is below $41,000, with 10.6 percent of households lacking health insurance and 19.9 percent in poverty. Despite being the largest school district in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia is also one of the poorest, by almost every measure.

When Philadelphia closed schools in March, students were sent home with homework packets. Teachers were initially instructed to avoid remote instruction, citing a lack of equal access to the internet and computers, as well as differences in learning ability. The district then gave teachers the option for online instruction to those with access, without penalizing those without home internet access. It took two weeks for the School District to provide loaner laptops to students in need.

The contrast is stark when you examine school districts in neighboring counties, many of which are majority white.

In 2018-19, Radnor Township School District had 362 black and Hispanic students out of more than 2,600 total – less than 13.8 percent. Radnor launched a full online education program within days, with curriculum in place and students in regular contact with instructors. Radnor was ranked by Philadelphia Business Journal as the seventh-richest Southeastern Pennsylvania district, with median household income above $111,000 and a 4.2 percent poverty rate.

Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, or T/E, the second-richest district, set up daily emails to elementary school parents to ensure students are on track with their curriculum. T/E boasts median household income near $130,000 and a poverty rate below 4 percent. It serves Tredyffrin and Easttown townships, nearly 80 and 88 percent white, respectively.

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While these resource-rich districts can close schools and send students home knowing they will be in regular contact, other districts send students home with a homework packet and might not have any instructor interaction for weeks because families do not have computers and internet at home. Children who may have used a computer at the local library don’t even have that option anymore.

It’s time for all of us – parents, teachers, administrators, lawmakers, students – to look at why and how we got here.

We must consider real educational investments, so our children can return to school confident that they will be able to learn effectively, regardless of the circumstances. If we do not make much-needed changes, this unjust cycle will continue.

Our children are the future, and they deserve so much better.

Andrea Custis is the CEO of the Urban League of Philadelphia. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.