KEFFLER: Equity & (Not) Going Digital: The Pandemic Failure of Northern Virginia’s Public Schools

Why is holding all children back considered less a failure than failing to bring every child up?

It’s been anything but smooth sailing for northern Virginia’s public schools since Governor Northam shuttered them on March 13, 2020.

In fact, 47% of our nation’s public school students haven’t attended a single class since the shutdown, compared with only 18% of private school students. Rivendell School in Arlington, Virginia, took up 9:00 AM -3:00 PM online school days starting March 16. Homeschooled students also seem to have continued their learning with just a few tweaks.

So why are so many public schools falling so far behind private and homeschool models? Maybe because “equity” is a tidily convenient scapegoat used by school administrators to dodge responsibility for failure, while simultaneously virtue-signaling their moral superiority.

The latest communication received by families in my school district, Arlington Public Schools (APS), listed a panel of six teachers and administrators taking part in a podcast to discuss frequently asked questions about the “APS Continuous Learning Plan”. The district’s shiny new Chief Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer took part.

Is this holder of this new position in the district concerned about the quality of learning and academics? It doesn’t seem so. According to the APS job description, this officer will “will lead the development and implementation of a Division-wide strategic plan to systematically advance diversity, equity and inclusion across all APS schools and departments… by examining: cultural competency, policy, instructional practices, assessment issues, teacher preparation and professional development.”

One may be reminded of a truism from up north: A moose is a horse designed by committee.

Schools in northern Virginia certainly seem to be building a moose as they attempt and fail to shift from brick-and-mortar to online learning. Following the porn- and vulgarity-profuse debacle of Fairfax County Public Schools’ quickly-scuttled attempt to inaugurate distance learning this week, parents should be asking one question: Why, after more than a month, is there still no coherent and workable plan in place for our children’s ongoing education?

As a parent and educator of both home- and public-schooled kids, I’ve had the advantage of observing how both communities have responded to the pandemic quarantine.

Within days of the shutdown, my daughters’ homeschool programs, Classical Conversations and Harvester Teaching Services, went digital. Parents and directors met online for a troubleshooting powwow, then weekly class meetings moved to Zoom. After the first story about Zoombombing hit the newscycle, tutors harnessed Zoom’s security features like waiting rooms and password-protected meetings. My older daughter’s online algebra class via Mr. D Math continued uninterrupted. Homeschoolers’ educational lives have progressed, for the most part, according to business-as-usual.

My son, on the other hand, has spent the past five weeks of his junior year in Virginia’s Arlington Public Schools (APS) doing very little of anything.

In mid-March APS announced that school would be canceled until April 14, following the planned spring break. Soon teachers began sending out work, but it was not counted toward grades. (So why would any red-blooded, typically-developing American kid choose to do it?) When Virginia went into lockdown through June 10, we learned that students’ cumulative third-quarter grades would serve as their final grades for the 2019-20 school year, unless they wanted to do extra work toward improving that score. We’ve lately heard a suggestion that the fourth quarter material from this academic year may be added onto the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Few people like that idea.

The one overarching theme present in every communication from APS is “equity”: Apparently nothing can be asked of any student, unless every student is positioned to do it.

Educational equity sounds like a noble standard, until one recognizes that as it currently functions, equity is only an equalizer because it is a hamstringer. Equity in the public school system does not result in all students getting what they need to succeed, but in all students being educated at the level of the lowest common denominator. If even one student in the system does not have home access to WiFi, for example, no one can be asked to learn online.

So no one is.

Why is holding all children back considered less a failure than failing to bring every child up?

The educational solution to the quarantine problem is to create a system that meets the needs of most students, then to craft a secondary plan to address the needs of those who struggle with the primary system. This is the foundation of special education programs for kids with academic, physical, and/or psychological struggles: accommodations are made so students with special needs can succeed.

School systems – public, private, and homeschool – that are more focused on academics than on social justice crusades have already figured this out.

Indiana’s eLearning program “keep[s] learning going during a day of snow or other inclement weather, professional development, parent conferences, widespread illness, and flooding.” It’s been implemented successfully for several years. The Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa, is completing its year online with Zoom and the option to take pass/fail grades if preferred. Alaska’s Anchorage School District held parent/teacher Zoom meetings to launch their distance learning program, which was up and running by the end of March. Amy Perales, parent of four children ages 5-13 reports that, “The response and quick implementation of distance learning in Anchorage is amazing.”

My husband and I are making a back-up plan for our oldest, in case APS continues to flounder at sea, clutching their equity ideology like a deflating life raft. APS leases iPads and MacBooks for students at a cost of $400,000 per year, but technology is only as useful as its users allow it to be, and so far it appears that equity-obsessed administrators are willing to let distance learning go down with the ship, dragging students right along with it.

But hey, at least they’re all getting the same thing.

Maria Keffler

Maria Keffler is a former middle and high school teacher with a master’s degree in educational psychology. She is a co-founder of the Arlington Parent Coalition.
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