When I met Ariel White, she was preparing for what was already shaping up to be an unusual school year.
She quit her job, so that she could better supervise her 13-year-old brother’s schooling.
He struggled with remote learning in the spring, his performance only improving when White took a more active interest in his work.
“He was getting in trouble,” White recalled. “I was like, ‘How are you getting in trouble?’ He was sending inappropriate messages. … I downloaded the app (for distance learning) on my phone so I could see when he was submitting his work. He did a lot better. His teachers messaged me, and said he was doing great.”
White had planned to send her brother to eighth grade at Mont Pleasant Middle School in Schenectady when classes resumed this fall, but those plans were dashed last week, when the district abruptly canceled in-person learning for grades 7-12, citing state budget cuts.
For White, the cancellation came as a bit of a relief.
She was wary of sending her brother back to school in the midst of a pandemic, and only opted to do so because he was miserable at home.
“I’m trying to keep him healthy - mentally healthy,” explained White, who became her brother’s guardian in 2017, when their mother died. “Thirteen is not an easy age to be cooped up at home.”
Unless the Schenectady City School District suddenly reverses course, thousands of Electric City teenagers will be stuck at home this fall, their studies conducted entirely online.
Let’s not mince words: This is a disaster, one from which many children and families might never fully recover.
White is just one parent, but her decision - quitting her job to oversee her brother’s education - is not unusual.
All over the Capital Region, parents are figuring out how to deal with complicated hybrid school schedules that have children in school for part of the week and home for the rest.
Seldom discussed is just how much involvement remote learning requires from parents and guardians, and the sacrifices many of them are making to ensure that their kids get a quality education.
“It takes a lot of extra work if you want to make sure they’re doing what they need to do,” White told me. “A lot of kids were not participating. They were not trying at all.”
For too many students, particularly those in high-poverty communities, remote learning often means no, or very little, learning.
Low-income households are less likely to have access to a computer, or high-speed Internet; data from the educational technology company Curriculum Ready found that only 60 percent of low-income students regularly logged into online instruction, compared to 90 percent of high-income students.
If this trend continues, the consequences will be grave.
The consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates that lengthy school closures could cost children up to 14 months of education and lead to one million additional high school drop-outs in the U.S., exacerbating achievement disparities across income levels and between students of Black and Hispanic heritage.
“The damages to individuals is consequential, but the consequences could go deeper,” a June report from McKinsey observes. “The United States as a whole could suffer measurable harm. With lower levels of learning and higher numbers of drop-outs, students affected by COVID-19 will probably be less skilled and therefore less productive than students from generations that did not experience a similar gap in learning.”
Preventing this worst-case scenario requires providing our most vulnerable students with a high-quality, in-person education.
Unfortunately, we’re headed in the opposite direction, with cash-strapped districts like Schenectady bracing for massive layoffs at a time of enormous need. Reopening schools safely requires more funding, not less.
And while I’m reluctant to pick on a district dealing with an almost impossible situation, I can’t help but question the wisdom of canceling in-person classes for grades 7-12. Budget cuts have never been used to justify canceling in-person school before.
Should we really start now?
Yes, I know there's a pandemic.
But we need to consider the costs of keeping kids home long-term.
Our local infection rate is low - we ought to be able to open schools for those who want or need an in-person education.
The fact that so many kids will begin the school year at home is a testament to how badly our state and federal governments have failed children and families, who are now left to fend for themselves. Well-off families will mostly be fine - it’s those who were already struggling who will suffer the most.
White, 31, had a good job running the food pantry at Schenectady Community Ministries, but she and her partner decided they could get by without her salary. Even when her brother was planning to go to school, it was only for half the day, and she felt she needed to be home for him.
“I feel like it’s going to be very tough,” White said. “I’m not thrilled. I’m like, ‘This is the new reality.’”
“I feel like a lot of kids in this district are not going to succeed.”
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.