Detroit dispatch #9: Children learning during the pandemic

July 25, 2020

For students experiencing online or distance learning, their tablets and computers are substitute teachers. (Come on, admit it, remember your substitute teachers?  And this was when you were face-to-face with a principal just down the hall!) Only, on a computer screen, it’s like the teachers are in plexiglass boxes, bound hand and foot. Children can see, hear and talk to the teacher, but the teacher is stripped of all power to require appropriate behavior. Instead of listening, the child can easily mute the device and talk to others in the home, use a phone to watch You Tube, or exit the “classroom” altogether.


The social education, learning to focus attention on the teacher or another student or learning to behave with consideration of others in a group, is gone.  This is worse when household members disrespect the child’s learning space with loud music or talk or by waltzing through the child’s “classroom” in pajamas. A grade at the end of a 12 or 16-week semester won’t motivate a child to email in his or her daily assignments the way a teacher who gives “the look” up close and personal, can do. Then there are the technological glitches—software doesn’t always work, damaged devices; an internet connection, and even electricity, may not be there to connect a device.

In the abstract, in a perfect world, yes, children need to be in classrooms in person as soon as possible. The majority of educators and parents want children in school.  But we are in a pandemic with exponentially increasing cases and hospitalizations of people with COVID-19, with new studies showing that children both catch the virus and spread it readily. In Detroit, picket lines of parents and some school staff have hampered buses exiting their garage to transport children to summer school classrooms.

Parents who have been out of work and actively home-schooled their children have a new and greater appreciation for teachers. (A popular joke: “First day of home school.  Can I get this kid transferred out of my class?”)  But those who wish to kill public education stand ready to seize the statistic that about 4% of elementary children, previously not performing, did very well with online and distance learning.  Led by Secretary of (mis)Education Betsy DeVos, they will try to break up teachers’ unions and protections, reduce not just class size but teacher populations, and substitute machines and devices for human education.


Dana Nessel, the Attorney General of Michigan, has filed a lawsuit against DeVos, who diverted CARES Act money to private schools.  Without it, 64,000 Michigan children will not have tablets for online learning.  Schools need money for PPE and ventilation upgrades in older buildings.  DeVos’ argument is that this money should go to public and private K-12 schools, since money for higher education is available to both public and private institutions.  Nessel counters that the intent of the CARES Act is to support disadvantaged students.

For schools to open safely, it will take Herculean efforts by administrators, teachers, custodians and other support staff.  Huge mental shifts will be needed to process the changes in routines and requirements for hygiene and spacing. State legislators, many who are hostile to public education, will need to change laws affecting student attendance, upon which school funding is based. Effecting compliance with health and safety practices will be a costly uphill battle, especially in communities where President Trump has weaponized resistance to masks and social distancing.  If the rapid spread of the virus continues, schools will open, only to close again, creating more confusion and undermining health and safety compliance. 

Too many parents will have to choose between exposing themselves to health risks, keeping a job, or keeping children home longer. One educator criticized reopening plans created without involving teachers and parents, let alone custodians and lunchroom aides. He pointed out that problems existing before the pandemic are now exacerbated.  “These plans were made by people who don’t know what goes on inside schools. How do you get kids on and off the bus?  How do you deal with middle-schoolers snatching and hiding each other’s masks?”

Unfortunately, formal education is necessary for advancement in capitalist USA, and will be available to mostly white, middle- and upper-class communities. The digital divide is now a Grand Canyon.

But do not for one minute believe that children “aren’t learning” when their formal education is inadequate. They have already learned that their well-being and lives don’t matter to Donald Trump. But thanks to the Black Lives Matter ongoing movement, children in the U.S. can also learn that Black Lives Matter, that when there is a mass movement, real change is possible.

–Susan Van Gelder



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