May 11, 2020
Schools in Maryland were shuttered on March 13. A few days ago, we learned they won’t reopen—not this year, anyway. The announcement wasn’t unexpected, but it was still a blow, carrying with it the finality of a school year ending without ever emerging from the strange exile of distance learning.
During those last days with students in my Baltimore classroom—before any of us knew that schools were about to close—I recall trying to suss out, aloud, if this crisis was real. I even speculated that news outlets might’ve whipped us into an undue panic.
That seems foolish now, but back then, before the pandemic had sickened and killed so many, it was hard to imagine it would.
At school I sometimes joke with students that I’m growing old in this room, for I’ve been teaching in the same classroom for sixteen years. In this small, alternative high school, most of the students are seniors. And they tend to be older, too—eighteen, nineteen, sometimes even twenty years old—and often shouldering adult burdens. Some students have kids of their own; some students are on their own, living where they can, bouncing between the couches of relatives or friends. Many have come up in loving homes that sit in distressed neighborhoods. Several students work overnight shifts at the Amazon warehouse and come to school tired; others can’t stay for afternoon classes because they have to hurry to jobs at Chipotle, CVS, or working security at Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Even without a pandemic, Baltimore is a city churning with trouble. Crime, addiction, unemployment—all of it made worse by the city’s unjust, maladaptive responses: mass incarceration, disinvestment, municipal neglect, housing evictions. These familiar inequities have plagued Baltimore for decades.
Amidst these challenges, school can be a pillar of support in students’ lives. School is where kids can get a honeybun for breakfast (very popular) or a hot lunch; pick up their monthly MTA bus pass; connect with teachers; laugh, gossip, and confide with friends; attend robotics club; learn and often thrive in the nurturing environment our small school seeks to cultivate.
A Google classroom can’t replace the real, in-person connectedness of a learning community.
Complicating matters further, many students do their virtual learning on cell phones.
Imagine logging in for your English class on Google classrooms using your phone. In one tab, you’ve opened the PDF of Siddhartha, the novel you’ve been assigned; in another you’re trying to type into the graphic organizer—the tool for analyzing passages of text; and in the third tab you’re video conferencing with me and your classmates. All on that little screen. It’s doable, but it is awkward and frustrating for students.
The Central Office continues to distribute Chrome Books to students who need devices, but the process has been slow and piecemeal.
Other challenges persist as well. Some students lack Wi-Fi or share technology with siblings or struggle to focus at home or fall behind as they continue to report to jobs.
Perhaps this explains why so many students have logged off or checked out; about sixty percent of my students have stopped completing assignments or never began. In the distance between my device and students’ is an oblivion kids can disappear into. Surprisingly, among the digitally vanished are some of my best students.
School systems love to measure outcomes and, so far, the outcomes here aren’t good.
And, from this distance, it’s hard to know what else to do. When a kid is struggling at school—maybe their attendance is irregular or their focus is faltering—you can pull them up and check in, see what’s up, see what’s what, let them know you’re concerned, offer assistance, help steer them back on track or put them on notice, if necessary. The immediacy of a face-to-face conversation is often a teacher’s best chance at turning things around.
Phone calls, text messages, or emails—“touchpoints” in district parlance—often float around in the digital vapors, unanswered. And, honestly, after weeks of trying to coax and cajole disengaged students to log in and catch up, these efforts can begin to feel futile.
Nonetheless, I’m grateful to connect with those students who do tune in to our virtual classroom.
Last month, I asked students to write about how this pandemic has affected them. Their essays offered vivid portraits of lives disordered by the isolation of stay-at-home orders and the economic fallout of lost jobs.
One student wrote about his parents who are suddenly out of work and forced to call upon the charity of relatives for groceries—a “humiliating” disaster that coincides with the student and his two siblings being home all day, hungry for “snacks.”
Another student was upset and disillusioned after witnessing racial hostility toward Asian-Americans. “I really didn’t think people would just yell slurs right in people’s faces like that.”
But almost every student wrote about the disappointment of missing out on graduation ceremonies.
For many American kids, a high school diploma is a foregone conclusion—a symbolic milestone on the way to bigger ambitions. But for a lot of kids in Baltimore, a high school diploma is much more. Graduation is a triumph over the steep odds that, in some cases, relatives and friends could not, or did not, overcome. Parents sometimes put enormous pressure on their children to earn the diploma they weren’t able to earn themselves. Occasionally, students buckle under the weight of these expectations.
The happiest people I see each year are usually at my school’s graduation ceremony—kids and adults alike.
This is why, in a normal school year, spring is the best season. The school year is winding down, but anticipation for graduation is ramping up. Some years it feels like the building will burst with the joy and relief students feel upon nearly reaching the finish line of their K-12 education.
And we celebrate students in big ways and small. Each year in April and May, there are field trips to DC museums and usually a play at Center Stage; a school banquet with an awards ceremony that recognizes students’ academic strengths and perseverance; cap and gown photos; prom and the commencement ceremony; and, lastly, the senior trip to Six Flags.
I’m saddened that, this year, students will lose out on the much-deserved celebrations that mark this occasion.
And I’m worried about students who haven’t made the transition to virtual learning.
Opportunities for success rarely get divvied up equitably in this city. That so many already-vulnerable kids are getting left behind feels like just another raw deal for children in Baltimore.
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Schwartz’s contribution will be directed to Small Miracles Cat & Dog Rescue.