Left:  Pedro Noguera, Dean, USC Rossier School of Education, Right: Shaun R. Harper, Executive Director USC Race and Equity Center  

As the fall semester begins, the “Back-to-School” shelves at local stores look like they’ve barely been touched. There hasn’t been the same fervor to buy new school clothes or supplies. 

 After all, school has started, but — again — students aren’t “going back to school.” The sidewalks are empty, no school bells are ringing, there is no hustle and bustle. 

The school’s doors are locked with the pandemic still deemed too dangerous to allow for a normal classroom setting. 

Now, kids can roll out of bed, flip on their devices and report for school. At least those students who can navigate obstacles and successfully sign on. 

 The first week of school, under the best of circumstances, always takes adjustment; but this week proved to be especially difficult for parents who had to go to work and couldn’t be at home to help their kids log on to their devices or help them navigate the online instruction. 

Prior to the pandemic, parents dropped their kids off at school and they went on to work. But now more children are also at risk for being unsupervised, and parents struggle to find people who can watch their kids when they’re at work. This often poses an additional expense. 

During this first week, some parents tried to talk their children through the online steps by phone while they were at work themselves. Others arranged to stay at home for the first few days to get their kids settled in. Many found it hard to navigate this virtual world of learning themselves and haven’t had the benefit of enough education to help their kids with class instruction, but feel the pressure to fill in as home teachers.

Parents having trouble are instructed to call the school’s help lines for assistance. But it’s clear that distance learning, while it may be the best solution that can be offered during this pandemic, poses a long list of pitfalls that could cause too many kids — especially those who are already disadvantaged — to fall between the cracks.  

“This pandemic has exposed the great inequities in society, and certainly in education,” said Pedro Noguera, sociologist and dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. 

“Our most vulnerable kids — those with learning disabilities and children who are homeless  or children who are in circumstances that are overcrowded in apartments and the like — are really at a huge disadvantage and experience tremendous learning loss,” Noguera said. 

Some children living in motels with their families may have no learning space at all, as they may share only one room and might have siblings who also have their own virtual school instruction at the same time. 

Noguera said this inequity became crystal clear during the spring semester when millions of K-12 students, not only in the United States but around the world, couldn’t and didn’t participate in online distance learning because they didn’t have access to the Internet in their homes, or didn’t have electronic devices issued to them.    

“Both problems are related to poverty and what we call the “digital divide,” Noguera said. “On top of that most schools were not prepared for what occurred, and they did not provide real guidance to teachers on how to use the technology or how to deliver meaningful instruction to kids.”  

During a news briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services, panelists questioned why those in the best position to step up to narrow the digital divide aren’t being required to find solutions. “This has created a huge problem across the whole country, because without proper guidance, schools are left on their own to figure out how to make this work,” Noguera said. 

Meanwhile, tech companies that understand this virtual world best have grown richer from this pandemic, while students who come from low-income families during this same time struggle with a new Internet-based education model.

“Jeff Bezos (founder, president and CEO of Amazon) is raking in incredible profits for his business” during the pandemic, as is Facebook, Google and Apple, said Noguera said. 

“They have a moral responsibility to bridge the digital divide but they don’t act. They should be held accountable by Congress to invest in access to the Internet. It is a basic right at this point in our history,” the dean said.

While COVID-19 has put scores of people out of work and closed businesses, Amazon doubled its net revenue from $2.6 billion for Q2 in 2019 to $5.2 billion in net revenue for the months of April, May, and June. The company reported in a public statement, sales increased 40 percent to $88.9 billion in the second quarter, compared with $63.4 billion in the second quarter of 2019, said the company in a public statement.

Apple announced gross revenues of almost $58 billion, with $11 million in revenue. 

Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said they have asked Congress to spend $200 billion to bridge the digital divide. Senate Republicans have proposed a $70 billion package to aid school districts. Senate Democrats have proposed $175 billion. “The solution here is to get the federal government to put up the money [when they return from summer recess],” he said.  “This can include a provision to mandate that all households must have access to high speed Internet.” 

In addition to technical support, trauma and grief support is needed for students, school employees and their families who have lost relatives to COVID-19.

“COVID-19 mortality has had a particularly devastating effect on communities of color,” said Shaun R. Harper, executive director USC Race and Equity Center. “It’s important to ensure that we have sufficient mental and emotional wellness resources to help students and educators cope.” 

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, professor of Education, Psychology and Neuroscience at the Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier School of Education at USC, said there has also been a psychological impact on young children who’ve become homeless after their parents have lost their jobs during this pandemic, which causes neurological stress.

The lack of  interaction of school and friends can cause feelings of isolation and depression, the professor said.  

Immordino-Yang supports solutions that could utilize recent high school graduates who may be having a gap year to help. “We could tap into those young people and help them to become tutors, teachers, helpers, and education activists for kids in their vicinity,” she said

People of color, said Harper, need to be included in the discussion about what is needed.

“One of the things that has become painfully obvious to me in  both K-12 and higher education is that many plans are entirely race-less,” Harper said. 

“I am afraid a race-less plan for reopening [schools] is going to yield racially dispraise outcomes, as we’ve seen in other parts of the pandemic. We need to given them a space at the table to communicate those needs.” 

Meanwhile, concern is growing that we could be headed toward a huge crisis in education, and the task to create a plan to return to schools appears daunting. Unions have been clear in pointing out that their teachers need protection, too, and they can’t be forced  back into traditional classrooms if it means working under unsafe conditions. 

“There hasn’t been the kind of funding required to open schools safely in many districts in many states,” Noguera said. “The absence of leadership in Washington and on a state level, I think has caused this crisis.”