Written by: Reagan Flowers, PhD
The complete impact of the Coronavirus remains to be seen. Across the board, our efforts as a nation to keep our country safe are already having a significant impact on education. The announcements of school closings keep coming, and the dates for projected reopening continue to be extended. The hardest hit by these developments will be students from economically depressed communities.
School systems have taken the necessary steps to keep students and staff safe, but are still determining how to use online platforms to reach their instructional goals for the year. In higher education, you would be hard-pressed to find an institution that was not offering online options prior to the Coronavirus. Which provides colleges/universities a foundation to build when having to convert all courses to an online platform.
At the K-12 level, however, it’s significantly more complicated. Most students in these age groups have not yet mastered independent learning, are not self directed, and need teachers and parents to facilitate the learning process. With the Coronavirus still presenting a lot of unknowns, most schools are still unsure how they’ll help their students catch-up. In many cases school systems have closed for the remainder of the school year.
The Coronavirus epidemic reaffirms the importance of STEM education for all children. As mentioned in, Preparing Students for a Changing Workplace, digital literacy is a key component for student success. This has never been more apparent than in a world where so many are now working and learning from home. Video and phone conference calls are a concept familiar to some, but for many in the workplace, it was not an everyday necessity until now.
When we make assumptions that all things are equal, the transition to virtual platforms appears to be seamless for most. In reality, that is not the case for many students. Not every student has a school that provides laptops or has internet access at home. A work around for some students who lack the tech tools and resources, schools are providing take home packets with lessons for parents to work on with students. Even with this solution, students encounter additional challenges at home when there is not a parent or sibling who has the capacity to assist with lessons and libraries being closed. Not to mention, the rigor being taken out of lessons that require additional research, creation of a presentation, or typed responses. With the closing of everything that is considered non-essential, social distancing requirements, and a lack of resources to participate in the education system equitably, many children are being left behind and the achievement gap is widening.
Students With Limited STEM Resources
According to a 2015 study, only 61 percent of children 3 – 18 had internet access at home. That means nearly 40 percent of these students will not have access to the resources they need while separated from school.
Of course, the internet is just the beginning. Students from underserved communities also rely on their schools for books, supplies, science equipment, and more. These families may not have the resources to simply order some books or a science kit off Amazon.
Teachers With Limited Technology Training
Though the U.S. education system is trying to bring teachers up to speed on technology, the districts with the fewest resources are often the last on the list. Across the board, K-12 teachers certainly weren’t expecting to be forced into distance learning at the drop of a hat. Many have never held class or consulted with students or parents virtually, beyond the occasional email.
Underserved schools are doing their best to make sure students have what they need. In most cases, putting funding toward installing distance learning systems and technologies in place has not been a priority. It is certainly on the wish lists of these schools, but with limited priorities,they must prioritize how to make the most of what’s available. With the Coronavirus changing things so quickly that distance learning has become an immediate need within a matter of weeks. Leaving little to no time to correct this problem.
Parents Without Educational Backgrounds
In the face of this crisis, parents are being asked to homeschool their children. This poses a number of problems for all parents, and more for those with limited resources. First, many of these parents have no background in education, and grew up in an era where STEM had not been a priority in the classroom. Therefore, it is difficult for them to teach subjects to which they may have had very little exposure.
Furthermore, low income generating parents are working hard just to make ends meet. If they are fortunate enough to have a job where they can work from home, balancing the roles of teacher and worker becomes very difficult. And during this time of dealing with the Coronavirus, many service workers do not have a work from home option or have lost their job all together and are spending their time and energy focusing on making sure the bills still get paid. Then there are those parents working in grocery stores, driving the public bus, or supporting hospital functions, who have the added struggle of finding childcare so they can go to work.
Learning resources are not the only concern in economically depressed communities. Many of these students depend on the National School Lunch Program for meals throughout the year. Districts are trying to make other arrangements while schools are closed, but in communities where resources are limited, there is concern about how far these concessions will go. It is very difficult for a hungry child to learn, and to focus. No child should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, and this only adds to their stress levels with schools being closed, the fear of contracting the Coronavirus, and the hopeless feeling of not knowing where to go for help.
This has been a paradigm shift for us all. New environments for many children have been created with schools and daycares closed, many parents are relying on relatives, friends, and whoever they can for childcare. The routines they experience at home and in the classroom have all changed, and this adjustment makes it difficult to study and learn.
How Teachers Can Help Students During The Pandemic
With the current situation, it’s important that we support students the best we can. Despite our best efforts, some may fall behind and have to work harder to catch up later, but we must do everything we can to support them.
Teachers must realize that an emotional connection is essential right now. No student should feel cut off or abandoned. Teachers can help by acknowledging students’ concerns and being transparent. None of us know what is going to happen with this virus, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know.”
It is also very important for teachers to make it very clear how they can help. Depending on resources available to the student, this may mean an email or it may mean making some phone calls. It’s important to make sure the families know you care about them, not just their school assignments. Let students and their parents know how you can help, and how and when you can be reached. Also be clear about your expectations and what you want your students to be doing during closure. Again, this may still be undetermined, and it’s okay to say “we’re still working on the plan and I’ll let you know as soon as I can.” People fear the unknown, but it’s easier to swallow when they know the reason you’re not sharing information is because you don’t have it yet.
How Parents Can Help Students Not in School
First, keep in mind that every situation is unique. If you have questions about lessons your teacher wants you to deliver, can’t be home to help teach your kids or don’t have access to resources your child needs to learn, reach out. Ask the teacher, the school, and your network for ideas on how you can help keep your child up to speed.
Next, continue to encourage your child’s curiosity, especially in relation to everyday situations and problems needing solutions and/or that connect to the world around them that are relevant. Seize every opportunity you can to connect daily experiences to science, technology, math, engineering, and art. Children learn and retain more than adults, so it’s important to keep their young brains engaged. For more ideas on how to do this, check out the Summer was Made for STEM blog post from last summer.
Finally, seek out free resources where available. Here at C-STEM, we offer free, at-home activities. Visit our cstembreak website for more information. The site also includes online groups where you can connect with teachers and other parents.
Start Taking Notes for the Future
Though this is a difficult and confusing time, it also presents an opportunity to see where our schools can improve. Every student deserves the same access to an education that will fully prepare them for the future.
The outbreak of Coronavirus has shown us, even more than we already see daily, the disparity gap that is created according to zip codes. When all this has passed, and students are back to their regular routines, speak up. Make it clear to schools what is needed for every student to succeed in this increasingly digital world.
We will continue to do our part here at C-STEM, as well. Our dedicated network of schools, teachers, parents, partners, and sponsors is strong and committed, but we are always looking for new ways to serve even more students. I’d love to hear about the challenges you are facing with helping your child keep up with school in light of the Coronavirus. Please leave a comment below, which will help us here at C-STEM better serve students going forward. We hope this is the only world event of its kind our kids will see, but we will do our part to help them be prepared in any way possible.