As We Phase Out Virtual Learning, What Does It Mean To “Catch Students Up?”
By: Jonathan T. Swain, President & CEO
In the first two weeks of March, Chicago Public Schools welcomed tens of thousands of kindergarten through eighth grade students back for in-person learning. Another surge in in-person attendance is expected on April 19th, the target date set by CPS for opening to high schoolers.
While many parents are excited for their children to once again have the opportunity to interact with teachers and peers, conversations around reopening have another prevailing theme: What do we need to do to catch our students up after a year of virtual learning?
Across our state and nation, well-intentioned concerns about “catching students up” have developed into conversations about “solutions” like tutoring, summer school, and academic tracking to help those who have fallen behind academically.
Amongst all of this noise, we must ask ourselves, who are we catching up, and what exactly are we catching up to?
Many have considered this year of pandemic education a “wash.” It was a year of learning what to do, how to adapt, and scrambling to mitigate deeply entrenched inequalities in our school systems. Here at LINK, we didn’t need a pandemic to tell us that these inequalities exist. Many others, however, only began to realize this last March when students in neighborhoods like West Englewood, where 46% of people under the age of 18 do not have internet access, were left to conquer the digital divide at the onset of the pandemic.
COVID-19 may appear on the surface to be the reason we need to play “catch up,” but in reality, students from historically underinvested communities and students of color have been playing catch up for generations in a system that wasn’t designed and funded for them to succeed.
Without the same resources as others, our school systems’ metrics of success continually work against students with limited means, setting them up for failure. I have spoken to several of the Scholars in our programs who echo this sentiment, saying they do not feel as though the school system was built for them. Their teachers don’t look like them, the curriculum doesn’t include them, and the benchmarks they’re supposed to be able to meet don’t reflect how far they’ve come and how hard they work. Some of our most central benchmarks, like the SAT, have been scrutinized in recent years for maintaining racial inequities.
So, instead of throwing band-aid solutions on the inequalities the pandemic has shone a light on, we need to take this moment in time to seriously consider how we measure success and how we speak to our students about if they’ve achieved it. A big part of that reconsideration process will be determining the “why” behind the “what” and the “how.” Are we preoccupied with catching students up to a point where they can reach certain test scores so we can move forward as though we’ve solved the problem at hand, or should we be motivated by making our students, all of them, feel excited to learn, contribute, and grow?
My hope is that, by exposing these inequalities, the pandemic demonstrates that our students’ needs weren’t being met before, and that they will continue to struggle without a reevaluation of what it means to be successful moving forward. The catching up began long before the move to virtual learning sent us scrambling to provide internet access and computers to the droves of students across Chicago who had been navigating school without them. For years.
What will we do about this educational system that is failing black and brown students and those with limited means now that we can no longer use the pandemic as an excuse for our shortcomings?