Throughout history, tragedies and disasters have had a way of revealing how ill-prepared we are to meet their challenges. The rise of COVID-19 has laid bare our nation’s lack of readiness to confront a global pandemic or even follow the measures needed to keep our communities safe from this virus. It has also deepened the widespread digital divide among students — the gulf between the technology they need to be successful and what they have access to in their schools and homes.
As a former classroom teacher, superintendent of the Recovery School District, and now the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, I have fought against systemic inequities for over 30 years. I grew up here in New Orleans and I want all kids in our city — and every city — to be able to fully access educational opportunities this fall, regardless of race or income. To make that a reality, we require certain tools for success, ones we can agree on no matter any differences in belief or policy. Those tools are masks and internet-connected devices for all students.
Every student, teacher and staff member should follow the Louisiana Department of Education and Louisiana Department of Health’s guidelines on the wearing of face coverings. This protects our children, educators, and all of their families, and it shows that our schools know the safety of others is our number one concern. The science is clear: When people wear masks, transmission of the disease decreases significantly. It is an act of love for our community, and helps keep students healthy enough to learn.
Second, we must offer access to internet-connected devices for all families in our state. In a survey of Louisiana school systems, 35 parishes reported that less than half of their students had home internet access. Virtual schooling is inherently inequitable when some students don’t have the tools they need to interact with their teachers, engage with the curriculum, and receive and complete their lessons. Access to this technology often falls along lines of privilege, leaving poor students and students of color academically further behind and less prepared to thrive in our 21st-century workforce.
We can provide students with these necessary tools through both state and local efforts. We must focus resource allocation at the school and district level on technology and safety. We need a continued, coordinated effort between schools and their school systems; together, they must produce tightly managed plans to get internet-accessible devices and PPE into the hands of the students that need them.
We must also declare, statewide, that high-speed internet is a basic need. Then, we must focus state resources on creating the infrastructure to provide it. This can be done by allocating federal CARES Act funds, including the Governor’s Emergency Relief Fund, to supporting the purchase of devices and access points for K-12 students. The governor must act quickly to allocate the funds for this purpose so that school systems can begin the complicated work of procuring, preparing, and training that is involved in getting technology into the hands of students.
Together, we will redefine schooling in 2020 with equity and safety at the forefront. This is complex work that requires us to acknowledge our shortcomings and commit to finding solutions. We must use some of the oldest technology we have — recall masked doctors treating the bubonic plague — and some of the newest — high-speed internet that lets us travel the globe in a click.
If we can provide this technology, we will both educate our children and keep them safe. We can ensure they will be the next epidemiologists, the next doctors and nurses, the next legislators and leaders, the next educators, ready to tackle the hardest problems our globe has ever faced.
Patrick Dobard is former superintendent of the Recovery School District and is the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.