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When schools across the nation shut their doors due to spread of the novel coronavirus, we were all left wondering, what now? What does this mean for teaching and learning? How do we, as educators, stay connected with our students and families? What resources can we count on? What should we expect?
As reopening guidelines remain varied and in seemingly permanent flux, we must remember that children across the country simply haven’t experienced consistent online teaching and learning.
In my role as program manager for the Refugee Educator Academy at the Center for Learning in Practice, I am in a unique position to contribute to a change of course for professional learning and educational practice.
On a call not too long ago with 10 refugee educators from across the nation, I realized our power and the opportunities presented to us in this difficult moment. We know that our students of refugee backgrounds have been affected by conflict and crisis in their countries of origin and have already experienced gaps in their learning due to those adverse life circumstances. We recognize that, with the Covid-19 crisis, they are especially vulnerable and are unlikely to receive quality academic instruction online or at home.
An estimated 12 million students in the United States lack internet access at home, not to mention access to reliable tech devices. More than 20 million children rely on free meals from their schools, and even with individual school districts working hard to provide to-go meals to families, we know many will go without.
Teachers must take care of children and elderly parents in their homes, as well as their own precarious health, and cannot be available in the same ways they are during “normal” times when they are reporting to school each day. These conditions combined are not conducive to teaching and learning.
Long-standing inequities in society and in our schools — which marginalize and exclude students and families of color, those living in poverty and many who speak languages other than English at home — are more visible now than ever.
And while dismantling oppressive structures to establish a truly equitable education system will take concerted effort over the years ahead, there are steps we can take now. We must consider our pedagogical models, review our curricula and materials, and assess where we have fallen short in preparing for a moment like this.
A fragmented education system has left many of us isolated in our classrooms, schools, districts and states, unable to respond adequately to current Covid-19 educational needs, and in jeopardy of leaving many of our students behind in our cobbled-together approaches to offer something — anything — online.
Many of our students will certainly learn a great deal during this crisis — from their family’s rich funds of knowledge and the stories they share at home over the coming weeks and months, as well as from the larger society around them that shows care and compassion, greed and despair — but they will not have the same access to formal schooling options as their peers who have financial, linguistic and cultural resources more closely aligned with our current, albeit limited, available responses.
With the sour taste of No Child Left Behind still in our mouths, we recognize that so long as we each, individually, seek to develop resources for our students of refugee backgrounds, learning to use technology effectively to help differentiate instruction for students with special needs, or refining our pedagogies in one-off workshops, we will not get to a place of equity.
Someone will always be left behind as one teacher figures out a pedagogical shift that matters and another does not, or as one school maximizes its use of technology while another school struggles to get laptops into its students’ hands. This is a moment to come together as professionals and learn in connected, inclusive, critical communities of practice.
Let’s think in terms of complexities and unities rather than in distance and fragments. Though physically separated, let’s connect online and reimagine what is possible for teaching and learning. If we commit to one another and to long-overdue pedagogical and structural changes that are fundamentally focused on access, inclusion, justice and equity, this critical moment offers an opportunity. Together, what can’t we accomplish?
This story about refugee trauma and the coronavirus pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Julie Kasper is a National Board Certified Teacher in English as a New Language, program manager for the Refugee Educator Academy at the Center for Learning in Practice, Carey Institute for Global Good, and University Fellow and doctoral student in educational leadership at the University of Arizona.