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WBUR Town Hall RECAP: The Big Stay: What COVID-19 Means For Students And Families

What are the potential long-term effects of the pandemic on learning and families? Parents working from home full time are now homeschooling with no end date in sight; low income families without access to the Internet are at a disadvantage; social distancing requirements are raising stress levels with playgrounds closed and playdates not allowed.

WBUR senior education editor Kathleen McNerney moderated this discussion with Thabiti Brown, head of school at Codman Academy Charter Public School, and Margaret McKenna, educator and civil rights attorney, president emerita of Lesley University and former member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

On how the pandemic has spotlighted educational accessibility:

Thabiti Brown: I have colleagues and friends whose children are in independent schools where they are seeing six, seven hours of online experiences with their educators on a daily basis, [and] still a couple hours [of] homework at night. And they don't have any of these structural barriers that many of our young people are facing either — housing insecurity, food challenges, difficulty with accessing the internet. These are not structures they're facing and they're going to be fine ... The questions are: Do we have the moral will to ... green-light those investments to make sure that black and brown children, low-income folks across the across the country, rural cities, have those investments so that ... we can also make sure that we are closing those gaps. I'm deeply concerned about that.

On early education:

Brown: For the future ... Starting with our youngest, we're got to figure out how to get [preschoolers] in the building because it's the hardest. These platforms are really geared towards adults and older children. It's the hardest to reach them ... We're getting them in the building because we know that ... if we're not thoroughly educating our youngest, their foundation won't be strong. If their foundations are not strong, we're spending the rest of their career catching them up. So those are the folks we have to make sure to invest in wisely.

On what to expect as schools reopen:

Brown: I think short of a vaccine that comes online in the summertime and is able to wipe out this pandemic, we're going to see a mixed opening in the fall and likely for the full school year. When I say mixed, I mean there there aren't many scenarios right now that we're looking at where we think all of our students and our K-12 are going gonna be in their classrooms like they were this school year. All of our scenarios assume far fewer students in person on a regular basis, some mixture of remote learning,  [and], for some students who are particularly vulnerable to this virus, maybe never coming into school. That's true for staff as well.

I think at best, we're looking at smaller groups of people. We're looking at a combination of remote [and in-person learning]. We're looking at different ways of earning promotion that are around competency. And again, these are all just ideas. Who knows what's actually going to happen?

I think the likelihood of opening looking like what you thought it might look like three months ago [is] just not good anymore. So how do you plan for that and how do you do that in an environment where the dollars we were promised — that we were owed, frankly, for our populations — aren't coming through, where it's likely we're not going to see increases in tuition for people, where it's likely that, [since] the philanthropic community is also down, that giving is going to be down. How do you then have smaller classrooms with more educators in environment where there's literally less money — billions and billions of dollars less in the coffers of the state? I am not sure how to do that, but I have a lot of faith in the brilliance of our team and the great colleagues and minds across the city. And so, we're gonna figure it out. We don't have a choice; our children deserve us figuring it out.

On potential positive outcomes: 

McKenna: There are two good things that have come out of this. One, I hope, is a respect for teachers and what they do and how hard that job is. I mean, I grew up in a family of teachers. My mom and dad both taught their whole lives in public school. And I have a son who's a teacher and a daughter-in-law who's a teacher. And I'm a lawyer by training — a civil rights lawyer — and I substitute-taught, and it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. [It was with] fourth-graders, and I was trying to reason with them ... I was like, "I don't know how [teachers] do this. I do not understand." It is the hardest thing I've ever seen. So I have so much respect because I grew up with it and I tried it for a little bit ...

The whole idea of teaching a child how to read is a science and an art, and it's a mystery, right? ... I mean, it it's a miracle, I think, that teachers perform every day. And they're really skilled. And I hope people have recognized it.

This article was originally published on May 13, 2020.

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