Impoverished K-12 Students Head into Next Year Missing Pivotal Building Blocks

Young students all over Mississippi and the South are celebrating their high school graduation under the shadow of COVID-19. Schools have taken to breaking up graduation ceremonies into multi-day events in order to keep participation low and reduce the risk of spreading the deadly disease. Clinton High School, for example, broke their celebration into 19 ceremonies, while other schools resorted to “drive-through” graduation services. 

Graduates are watching their college world flip. Many of them are heading off to college in a world where some colleges are possibly foregoing ACT and SAT testing requirements, or mulling the possibility of doing away with the 2020 fall semester entirely. Their younger peers, however, are meeting the next K-12 grade level with roughly half their current years studies under their belts. 

Many schools abruptly stopped taking students when the novel coronavirus blanketed the nation. In order to slow the spread and “flatten the curve” of infection, educators resorted to a host of alternative, semi-structured lesson plans that removed the highly contagious classroom environment. Schools haven’t yet embraced a uniform alternative to non-classroom teaching, however, and not every alternative is the same, according to Dr. Leeson Taylor, president of the Mississippi Alliance of Black School Educators. 

“Think of it like these old patchwork quilts that my grandmother used to make. That’s the education process that you see in play right now,” Taylor told The Lighthouse.  

Many of the wealthier school districts were able to send students home with electronic devices and software to convey lesson plans; other, less wealthy districts didn’t have the finances for laptops. Many student homes in poorer districts don’t have internet, anyhow, which renders laptops useless. 

Students in poorer districts likely have to make do with worksheets— and they can only hope their worksheet or textbook offers enough math sample problems to help them work out the process. If not, they best hope a parent or relative is available to offer tips because there’s no googling for help in a home without internet. 

While worksheets clearly aren’t a substitute for teacher involvement, it turns out internet and laptops aren’t the best alternative either, according to Taylor and several other teachers. Many schools resorted to popular software programs such as i-Ready. But while i-Ready makes a fine supplement for learning, it is not and never was designed to replace the lesson. 

“That program is a program that can enhance what’s taking place in the classroom, but it’s not supposed to be used in lieu of what’s taking place in the classroom,” said Taylor. 

One teacher working in a Memphis school district, who asked not to be identified, agreed: “i-Ready is an online tool that supports teachers in a classroom. It is in no way meant to replace teaching. Plus, you’ve got to have a computer. Students can sort of do it on their phones, but it’s just not possible to do it right that way,” said the educator. “You lose 60 percent of the capacity of the lesson plan when you use a phone. Your phone can’t handle everything.” 

Another teacher working in Mississippi’s Marshall County District reports her school was still assigning long-distance assignments as of May 14, mostly with computers and workbooks. She added the school had also designed workarounds for students with no internet access. Her most recent tallies revealed roughly 70 percent of students had completed their online assignments, which are no more than USA Test Prep submissions. The Marshall County teacher said she worked with students as much as possible through Google classroom because online courses are not self-sufficient. 

“I’ve done a lot of personal calls with kids and we’ve done assignments together. And I do that because with USA Test Prep, you can just sit there and click, click, click, click, and you’re finished. It’s meaningless, in my opinion,” the teacher said. 

Other, less wealthy, districts that resort to worksheets have to simply hope for the best, said Taylor. But ‘hoping for the best’ will likely mean dealing with students who have missed almost a whole year of learning. To teachers, students coming back from summer break later this year might actually look like some kind of ‘lost generation’ where everybody’s back to square one for the 2020 year. 

“You can look at the entire Delta area,” Taylor said. “Any of those predominately free- and reduced- lunch districts will have fewer resources to work with students, and you’re going to see regression. Remember that your classroom environment and your home environment are different. What they’re learning at home is not the same (quality.)” 

The Marshall County teacher said she feared many of her students would be tempted by all the free time this year to take school less seriously and involve themselves in low-wage jobs. 

“Many students are using this (COVID-19 year) to take on extra shifts at work. And I think when we’re talking about a district with a high-poverty population, you’re going to have a lot of kids who make the personal choice to continue to work in the fall, if it becomes socially acceptable. A few months ago, there would be social pressure to keep going to school and graduate, but if we continue to encourage social distancing and encourage people not to be in rooms with 20 other people, the decision to drop out and go to work might become mainstream.” 

The Memphis teacher told The Lighthouse the upcoming fall school year would probably be a year of impossible aspirations and rude awakenings for many administrators. 

“(They say) we’ll be returning to a world of masks, but I can’t teach behind a mask,” the educator said. “Your voice doesn’t carry. It’s a barrier, and you’re talking about a classroom. They’re also saying classes are going to have to be smaller, but we don’t have the personnel, and we don’t have the money for extra personnel. It’s nothing we can seriously entertain.” 

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