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Top educator denounces 'disaster for poor children,' calls on Biden to 'treat teachers like hospital workers'

Sibile Marcellus
·Anchor
·4 min read

Research shows that in-person learning is the best strategy for supporting kids and meeting their educational needs. But fear of spreading the coronavirus has taken precedence, hitting some of America’s more at-risk youth especially hard over the past year.

Nearly half a million Americans have died from Covid-19, but studies indicate that in-person schooling does not increase the spread of the virus. “People are scared and teachers are scared, and schools don’t quite know what to do,” Geoffrey Canada, president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Yahoo Finance.

Yet that fear shouldn’t justify closing school doors, says Canada, pointing to the consequences for children, especially those most at-risk. “We know poor children, in particular Black and brown children, are having probably [the] worst educational experience of their lives right now,” said Canada. “And they’re not losing just academically, they are losing socially and emotionally. We think there’s going to be lots of mental health challenges from this.”

President Biden wants to devote $130 billion of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus financial relief plan to reopening the nation’s schools. The Senate is currently tied up with former President Trump’s impeachment trial, though both House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have insisted the trial won’t slow down the approval of Biden’s plan.

Reopening schools has to be “job number one for President Biden” given that “this year has been a disaster for poor children in this country,” says Canada. “We can’t wait for vaccines to happen...We should treat [teachers] like hospital workers so that we can open up these schools.”

President Joe Biden speaks to Department of Defense personnel alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Joe Biden speaks to Department of Defense personnel alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

As president of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit organization that supports low-income families in New York City, Canada serves 22,500 children and adults annually. Participants of HCZ’s programs have a 97% college acceptance rate. Educating at-risk youth is Canada’s specialty.

Remote learning amid the pandemic, he says, has only exacerbated inequality in education. “The most disadvantaged students struggle the most with remote learning,” he said, pointing to “crowdedness” in low-income housing as a major factor. “You’ve got to have an environment that is conducive to learning.”

A survey of low-income families in Los Angeles published by the USC Rossier School of Education in October 2020 shows the many challenges with remote learning. The study found about a third of the families report that their children were only able to complete “some but not all” of their school assignments. And as the reported number of live instruction hours increases, so does the reported rate of schoolwork completion.

Working parents

Another disadvantage facing low-income students is that their parents often have to physically go to work amid the pandemic, unlike higher earners, many of whom have the option of working from home.

“Every parent right now -- if you’re a parent and you have a child learning remotely, you know you are playing teacher. You are spending time with that child,” said Canada. “But what if you have to work? What if you’re exhausted because you make a minimum wage and you’re terrified about getting Covid and you come home. How are you going to provide the same support for your child that other parents are able to provide for their children?”

FILE - This file photo from Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, shows first-grade teacher Megan Garner-Jones, left, and Principal Cynthia Eisner silent clap for their students participating remotely and in-person at School 16, in Yonkers, N.Y. Teachers unions called Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, for New York to shutter schools as the state reverses course on a policy to switch to remote-learning in regions that reach 9% positivity. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE - This file photo from Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, shows first-grade teacher Megan Garner-Jones, left, and Principal Cynthia Eisner silent clap for their students participating remotely and in-person at School 16, in Yonkers, N.Y. Teachers unions called Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, for New York to shutter schools as the state reverses course on a policy to switch to remote-learning in regions that reach 9% positivity. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Access to an in-person teacher is critical for low-income children, says Canada.

“So much of this [remote] instruction is not by live individuals. They are just there for a little period of time,” said Canada. “And if you think it’s hard for poor kids to learn at the same pace when they’re in the classroom, it’s twice as hard for them to learn at the same pace when they’re home without that teacher there supporting them, encouraging them, and guiding them all at the same time.”

Once schools reopen, the nation’s public school system can’t return to business as usual, said Canada.

“We’re going to have to accelerate the learning for poor children over the course, and this is not going to be just like six months or a year. [This will be] over the course of the next few years to try and make up for this lost year [because of the pandemic],” he said.

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