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OPINION

In spite of inequities and the coronavirus, many Boston Public School students are learning

But there must be a societal shift that prioritizes the immediate and basic needs many families faced before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Adobe/Globe Staff/Adobe

As the coronavirus pandemic moves society toward a new era, many are asking what tools Boston Public Schools students, educators, and parents need to preserve educational progress and continuity in elementary and secondary education.

Some have wondered why there are disparities or inconsistencies between districts, within the school district, or even within a school. Many were surprised by the lack of both technology access and skills by students and families. The last several weeks have starkly exposed the existing inequities that provide the context for how questions about continued educational progress must be considered.

Due to decades-long federal and state divestments from public education, the traditional set of resources that our inequitable society has long denied to children has placed many students at an extreme disadvantage during this crisis. For example, prior to the pandemic, austerity budgeting on the federal and state level meant that few Boston schools had computer classes.

Combined with an eroding social safety net and the widespread economic and health inequities that the pandemic has laid even more bare, our collective solutions must call for more than just better online platforms. There must also be a societal shift that prioritizes the immediate and basic needs many families faced before the pandemic began.

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If children are hungry, they cannot concentrate. If a family can’t afford a medical copayment, they can’t purchase a new laptop. If students are taking care of younger siblings or working during the day to support their family, they are not attending virtual classes.

If their parents have lost their jobs or are unsure about their next meal, responding to calls and e-mails from teachers, although well-intentioned, is just not a priority.

These are the real experiences we hear about every day. Access to food, housing, medicine, vital social and emotional supports, and the Internet are baseline tools that many students and families lacked before the pandemic.

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Despite these challenges, there is a tremendous amount of inspiring work being done by educators, the school district, and a range of volunteers to help families access resources that will make remote and online learning possible for as many students as possible.

Within days of the school closure, hundreds of educators from the Boston Teachers Union signed up to form our BTU Volunteer Corps, putting an army of teachers, social workers, guidance counselors, nurses, and staff on the streets to distribute resources door-to-door while doing everything possible to maintain social distancing and keep our communities safe.

Together, we acted quickly to ensure Chromebooks, Internet hot spots, and free meals were distributed widely to our students, mobilizing to reach students with these resources in their homes and in homeless shelters (there are about 4,500 homeless students in the district). We are also working with the city to conduct needs assessments and to ensure those assessment surveys are available in nearly a dozen languages.

While we adjust to the new normal, the reality is that, for students in districts like Boston, times have not been “normal” for many decades due to outdated formulas and severe cuts at the state and federal levels.

The overarching public narrative has been that there are two realities at play in education: pre-pandemic and post-pandemic. The reality is that our students have long confronted a different duality, and a different set of realities, when it comes to accessing fundamental resources that make for a healthy and secure life, let alone education.

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We must discover a new understanding of flexibility for families as well as a renewed appreciation for professional expertise. That’s why we have recently reached an agreement with the City of Boston that lays out important guidelines and protocols to help bring the right balance of flexibility and structure to our students’ daily lives. These protocols will naturally evolve over time, and as a union of front-line educators, we will continue to contribute our best ideas on how to optimize them for the benefit of students, who always have been and always will be our number one professional priority.

Unfortunately, much of the public envisions remote learning as something that is happening in a middle-class suburb, with a computer and Internet access, and with at least one parent at home who is fluent in the use of computers and whose first language is English. Some families have set up workspaces on different floors of the house to preserve quiet space for each other. But for thousands of students in Boston and other cities across the state, the reality at home — if they have a stable home — is quite different.

At the same time, we must ensure that learning continues for the students who are ready to learn, regardless of whether or not they face challenges at home. We have much work ahead to ensure existing gaps do not get wider, particularly for special education, English learning, and low-income students.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the trauma and inequities already faced by many of the communities we serve as front-line educators. Now we must meet this unprecedented moment together in ways that empower communities that face a disproportionate COVID-19 impact rather than compounding that impact. That means adopting trauma-informed teaching methods, trusting educators, affirming the necessity of direct student and teacher interaction as essential, and avoiding models that are one-size-fits-all.

Jessica Tang is president of the Boston Teachers Union.