Reopening of Schools in Asheville and Buncombe County and the Opportunity Gap

by Dr. Dolly Jenkins Mullen and Dr. Deborah James –

As school is opening under pandemic conditions, fundamental changes are underway—some of which you have already heard from the Governor and perhaps read about in the local paper or heard on the local news.

But most of us are not too clear on the specifics being decided by Asheville City and Buncombe County Schools. The purpose of this piece is to make you aware of ongoing efforts, and, perhaps just as important, about the reasoning behind those efforts—and to help you figure out what does not seem to address the needs of you and your children in this current planning.

First, rest assured that the people most concerned with providing education for all students have been hard at work to provide what is necessary for children to thrive. The pandemic added guidelines that will keep everyone as safe as possible: students, teachers, staff, and the larger community. This is especially difficult in light of Asheville’s terrible track record in terms of the differences in the performances of the Black and White students.

Even before COVID-19 hit and transformed how education was being delivered across the board, a great deal of effort had been underway to transform the means through which children were being taught. Then came the pandemic, and all bets were off. Now many of us are concerned that a situation which was already completely unacceptable has been made much worse by the additional obstacles presented by the measures in place to keep people safe.

The challenges we face include the problems of online learning. The digital divide ensures that access is not widely available to vulnerable communities. The basics that are needed to close the gap, such as laptops and tablets or any technology, must be guaranteed as mechanisms through which students can access online classes. And, of course, the problem of Wi-Fi and bandwidth must be eased.

In addition, some people do not have physical spaces where their children might work undisturbed for the amount of time required. Nor, often, is the help available—technically or in terms of teaching assistance, or even just monitoring whether or not the children pay attention or stay logged in—given the fact that there may be multiple needs in the same house. For example, at least one adult working from home and more than one child at different age/grade levels may need to use the equipment at the same time.

These challenges have been serious for all kinds of families, but especially for those in which any and all adults have to work outside the home. Who is then available to supervise any of these efforts?

Members in the Asheville community—from school board members, administrators, teachers and staff to parents, community activists—are aware of the many challenges to ensuring that all students receive a quality and equitable education despite the pandemic. In addition, the City of Asheville and Buncombe County’s recent commitment to Reparations are providing sources of hope for erasing the opportunity gap in education by seizing this moment to experiment with and determine new ways to transform the current systems.

Teams are working on addressing many of the problems that surfaced through analyzing the shift to online education. One new possibility has arisen: a way to have small groups of students safely gather face to face, appropriately distanced and masked, in community centers or other potential settings, where Wi-Fi and bandwidth issues are resolved. In such a setting, these students would also have adults available (perhaps trained volunteers) to help them navigate the actual online lessons and homework required, while teachers deliver lessons online. Although these plans have not been finalized, this is the type of effort it takes to increase student engagement and provide effective learning even within a virtual space.

So, what is needed from us as community? First, parents and the whole community must help students understand the urgency of their education. All of us have to help them persist, but our first tasks are to identify and eradicate barriers to whatever systems are put in place—from creating or providing consistent access to suitable places to learn, even when the safety requirements prevent them from going back into the regular classrooms, to ensuring they have ready access to anything that eliminates technical difficulties.

Second, we should all be alert for calls for help in making any new programs successful, including calls for our time, talents, and support.

Third, we need parents to maintain a high level of optimism (and perhaps a little patience) because this may be an opportunity, strange as it is, to actually “level the playing field.”

But that will take a lot of effort and time for the first bumps to be smoothed out. We must support each other; we are a community. If Reparations include repairing the damages of segregation, it is clear that educating our children in this time of crisis has to be a priority.

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