Claire Jeantheau is an intern with the Children’s Defense Fund for the Summer 2020 semester.
This spring, thousands of bedrooms, kitchens, and front porches—including my own home in central Virginia—turned into classrooms. As the COVID-19 pandemic surged across the United States, schools and universities closed, and classes shifted to digital formats. Though I griped about my early morning video calls, I made it through a surprise online half-semester of college largely without problems.
But the so-called “new normal” of remote learning wasn’t effective for many in my community, or the country at large, as it exposed long-entrenched disparities in the education of children and young adults.
In our county, there are numerous challenges for children who rely on special educational services—including my younger sister, a high school student on the autism spectrum. My mom spent late nights adapting to my sister’s coursework to her needs—a service that should have been provided through her school—to teach her by day. Other parents dealt with unresponsive educators or the loss of in-person therapies their children typically receive in the classroom. Our families’ experiences, however, aren’t new—they reflect a longstanding lack of attention to the needs of children with disabilities.
Elsewhere in the county, online classes revealed the digital divide between neighborhoods with resources and those without. Our county distributed paper packets of assignments for children without access to a computer, but collaborating with teachers and classmates in real-time often still requires an internet connection. Some families had no choice but to drive to the parking lots of designated schools for a WiFi signal. Our school board received CARES Act funds to send laptops to students, but those devices won’t be available until December—and the base problem of lacking broadband internet throughout the county persists.
These issues weren’t just happening in my hometown, either. Throughout America, students were not hearing from their teachers, were unable to log on to their classes, and missed much-needed services—particularly among students of color and in low-income communities. What happened this spring could widen pre-existing gaps for years to come in not only education, but also child well-being and mental health.
Education leaders are currently deliberating how to open in person for the fall, if at all, as COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb. As families continue to speak out, schools must consider two factors when drafting plans. First: students of all backgrounds and abilities should have access to the resources they need, from devices to counseling services. Second: there should be standards of responsibility to monitor student progress and actively communicate with every family. And above all, leaders should recognize that these are only the first steps in addressing longstanding disparities, which have also been “normal” for too many children.