At the University of Washington, I teach about socioeconomic inequities in early childhood development and parenting. Now, the growing impact of this novel coronavirus pandemic threatens to exacerbate inequalities and systemic oppression that endanger the well-being of underserved children. As Seattle and other communities close schools, enrichment programs — libraries, museums, the zoo, athletics — and public spaces, children in disenfranchised communities may lose access to critical supports for learning and development.
Studies have consistently shown that low-income communities are disproportionately affected during epidemics due to poor access to health care. From the outset of an epidemic, they are also more likely to have already been suffering from malnutrition and immunosuppression, which can increase susceptibility to infection.
What’s more, while parents in the knowledge economy have the option to telecommute, parents in low-wage jobs must choose to go to work in order to ensure the survival and well-being of their loved ones. Many of these jobs cannot be done remotely — cleaning hospitals and disinfecting school facilities, operating transit systems, serving customers in restaurants. Amid, work, school and day-care closures, low-wage earners are penalized for staying at home to care for their children or elderly parents — they can either lose pay or risk losing jobs. Paid sick leave legislation, as is provided in Washington and New York, is one way to address that.
But we also need robust investments in high-quality, affordable child care that uproots educational injustices before school entry. We need to increase compensation for the early-learning workforce who are barely making livable wages.
Schools provide structure and support for families and communities. A day-care or school closure means lost learning time and disruptions in family routines. Closing schools also could deprive more than 20 million students nationwide who rely on schools for breakfast and lunch. Not every school, particularly in underserved communities, is equipped to “implement e-learning plans, including digital and distance learning options” as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as the Northshore School District has been piloting this month. Now, Seattle Public Schools and surrounding districts are closing. District capacity to successfully implement remote instruction varies widely. Wealthier districts can distribute laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots, but others do not have the resources.
How, then, can we best ensure the continuity of learning for disadvantaged children who tend to be most affected by school closures? Schools must consider digital equity when developing plans. Universal access to video tutorials, digital libraries and learning materials can enhance parent-child learning interaction. In Italy, for example, all teachers have access to videoconference tools and lesson plans. Iran provided all children’s internet content free. South Korean teachers utilized ed-tech products that companies offered free of charge.
History demonstrates that we need to stop treating pandemics as “equal opportunity” events that fail to recognize differential impacts that COVID-19 may have on marginalized communities. Laying the foundation to support all children in the earliest years of life is one of society’s most important responsibilities. We need to design solutions not based on what works for the affluent but on what supports the more vulnerable to thrive in our society. That improves the chances that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, can weather this pandemic and potentially, create a more just society in the years to come.