Education advocates have long talked about the difference between equality and equity.
The distinction has never been more stark – or more important – than now as 33,000 Buffalo school children are among those sitting at home.
Their new "classrooms" will have dramatically different resources, from varying levels of internet access and online learning tools to the amount of time and knowledge their new "teachers" will be able to devote to their education.
The likely result: The education gap between low-performing and high-performing students will widen during the school closure.
"For people to think that (the closure is) going to affect kids equally is crazy," said longtime parent activist Samuel L. Radford III.
And the disparities go beyond the very real technological gaps, which the Buffalo Public Schools have worked to close by giving kids laptops and chromebooks and establishing neighborhood Wi-Fi hot spots, something the Brown administration also has done.
But that can't make up for all of the gaps in home resources, even among the most conscientious of parents.
No doubt, the stereotype persists that many low-income parents are like the conniving welfare mother in the movie "Precious," sitting home all day scheming how to beat the system and wanting nothing more for her daughter, either. Judging by the responses I get whenever I mention the learning gap and teachers in the same column, at least a few of them believe that, too.
But while there may be some parents like that, the larger reality is quite different.
An Education Trust-New York survey released last week found that 89% of the state's public school parents are concerned about their kids falling behind during the closure, and 63% are "very concerned." Among black and low-income parents, that higher level of concern is even greater – 72% and 71%, respectively.
So much for the stereotype.
"It's not what we're seeing in the data," said Education Trust Executive Director Ian Rosenblum, adding the numbers show that low-income parents "are particularly concerned."
Rather than not caring, "it's just that they don't know how" to school their kids at home, said Philip Rumore, Buffalo Teachers Federation president.
"Even if a parent appears not to care, I think it's just because they're hesitant because they don't have the confidence to do it," especially when it comes to computers, he said.
Add to that the fact that many low-income single parents work in essential jobs that cannot be done from home – they're health care aides, grocery store cashiers or stockers, transit drivers and the like – and they have little left when they get home while stressing over the possibility of what they might be bringing home with them.
"It's amazing how people who are not walking in the shoes of the most vulnerable really don't know what it's like," Radford said. "They don't know what they don't know."
It's the difference, he said, between focusing on whether your kids are completing their online lesson versus having to focus daily on whether they have a roof over their heads and something to eat.
Toss in high transiency rates and no phones or constantly changing phone numbers, and it's no surprise that Radford – former longtime head of the District Parent Coordinating Council – says there's been no contact with nearly a quarter of Buffalo's parents since the closures began.
"This has been one of the concerns teachers have been having; they can't reach the parents, they can't reach the students," Rumore said.
Yet the notion of holding such parents "accountable" for not logging on to get online lessons under such circumstance seems asinine.
"Nobody really knows what other people are experiencing," said Radford, who home-schooled some of his children and whose wife is a principal. "Home schooling is hard" even under normal circumstances, he said.
Against that backdrop, Rumore and Radford – who don't always see eye to eye – agree there has to be more help for such parents, as well as for parents of special education students.
According to the Education Trust survey, parents' biggest desire is regular access to their child’s teacher, with 95% saying that would be most useful – even beyond technology. Yet only 52% said their schools have made that access available.
"That's a 40% gap in what parents said would be most helpful to them," Rosenblum noted.
The Buffalo district has set up a helpline – 816-7100 – and promises to respond within 24 hours. But Rumore fears not many parents know about it.
Community organizations also have been meeting and brainstorming ways to reach the parents who have fallen out of touch, such as through relatives, Radford said. Instead of thinking the job is done when every home has equal access to instructional packets or Wi-Fi, the focus has to be on "how do we not let any student fall behind" and giving every kid what he or she needs, he said, noting that some families have more resources than others.
Pursuing that kind of equity won't be easy, but it's essential.
"I don't think there's any doubt about parents' focus or parents' commitment," said Rosenblum, whose organization works on such issues and who added that the more vulnerable students "were too often underserved by our education system in ‘normal’ times.”
Just as the new coronavirus has not had an equal impact across segments of society, depending on each group's underlying vulnerabilities, neither will the school closures it has caused – for the very same reason. We ignore that at our long-term peril.