School’s Out for Summer. But That Does Not Mean We Stop Learning…
By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.
If you are a student, you are happy about the school year coming to an end. If you are a parent or guardian, maybe not so much. For approximately the last 500 days or so, the specter of COVID loomed over every conversation or news report we dealt with on a daily basis, especially within our educational institutions. Students, faculty, and administrators had to learn new ways of transferring and consuming knowledge without stepping into a classroom, in most instances, for the first time ever! And depending on the academic institution or school, the 2020-21 school year could be viewed as transformational if nothing else.
As an educator and former school principal, I hope that faculty and administrators assess and evaluate what worked and what did not where remote schooling is concerned. Policymakers, administrators, teachers, parents, students, and other stakeholders need to reflect on what went well and what did not. If you are like me, you saw a number of silver linings as it relates to learning styles. You also saw how critically important usable, functional, and accessible digital platforms are, regardless of whether you are a teacher at the elementary school level or a professor at a university. That must also include those digital platforms we use to educate our aspiring students of all ages and abilities.
As a professional who also happens to be blind, I hope that faculty and administrators alike will not continue to turn a blind eye or a deaf ear, pun intended, to the critical importance of usable, functional, accessible and above all else, dependable digital platforms. That silver lining that I was talking about has a lot to do with our nation noticing, unfortunately for the first time, those systemic holes and barriers to education that plagued and continue to plague the disability community, well before anyone ever heard the term “COVID-19”.
First, let us stop and appreciate how our nation of educators in our K through 12 schools met and dealt with the challenge of teaching remotely. Unless you were a professor at a college or university, remote teaching was not a teaching style we embraced. But they met the challenge head-on and did a damned good job given the circumstances. So, thank teachers for stepping up. Of course, after a lot of trial and error, schools, colleges, and universities worked things out, but isn’t that education in a nutshell?
Our schools had to deal with poor bandwidth, poor connectivity, lack of access to tech in order to use the internet and so much more. The apparent shortfall in this instance afforded the Biden administration to consider our nation’s access to the internet and the importance of digital connectivity as a critical component of our infrastructure, acknowledging that the virtual avenues we travel daily are as important as our roads and bridges. Companies like Zoom immediately took progressive efforts to ensure that people of all abilities and ages, and not just those who are temporarily able, were capable of using their digital meeting platform that not just supported authentic inclusion of students with disabilities in their classrooms but impacted how professionals with disabilities were able to contribute and participate in the workforce. When we, as a nation, realized that social distancing was not just a way to avoid contracting the virus, but a way of life for the foreseeable future, educators had to step it up and learn, for the first time, how to teach virtually and remotely. Teachers and professors alike became the students and had to learn a new way to teach and reach their students where they lived.
Schools and post-secondary institutions had to adjust and concentrate with laser-focus on delivering academic enrichment while supporting students of ALL abilities in ways never before contemplated. Students who have disabilities are given much more than just book learning when they go to school. They get other supportive services that allow them to thrive personally and academically. Out of sheer will and determination, educators, administrators, and teaching aides had to adapt to the virtual environments to provide and deliver vital services that were traditionally delivered in-person to students. Merely having the team be more mindful and stressed about delivering knowledge via the internet gave them a bird’s eye view of many of the challenges those of us dependent on assistive tech face every day when stuff just does not work. Now, was it perfect in all cases? Of course not, there is nothing like an in-person interaction. However, for many students that real-time help, albeit virtual, kept students of all abilities focused on their individual academic journeys. The creativity that inspired solutions for the problem of educating students during the pandemic has planted the seeds of hope for a more enriching academic harvest for years to come.
The government increased funding to our schools to support this transition toward virtual teaching and improved the capacity of the digital infrastructure for remote learning. The funding priorities and resources which may have gone to lesser projects were used to ensure that students of all abilities and ages were supported in ways never considered prior to the pandemic. When “virtual classrooms” were not actually accessible and useable to all kids, advocates at all levels rolled up their sleeves and made the investments, with both human and financial capital, to fix what was absolutely broken within the learning management systems and protocols. Now there are procedures and plans in place to have kids learn wherever they are.
I applaud those unsung heroes: the teachers and professors who had to reevaluate, reassess, and reconsider how they transferred knowledge to all our leaders of tomorrow. Parents were forced to be in the “classroom-at-home” with their children, getting a close-up view of all that actually goes into educating their children. As we reflect on the past year and a half, maybe another silver lining was an appreciation for, and acknowledgment of the dedication and commitment teachers have for our learners of all ages and abilities and the difficult job that they do every single day.
I would also like to think we, as a nation, have taken a long hard look at how important properly funded schools are to America’s future. All schools, no matter how remote, no matter how underserved or under-resourced, need sufficient funding and resources to ensure we do not ever have to look back in horror and wonder why Dick and Jane cannot read. The pandemic exposed the glaring inequities in how our schools get funded, resourced, and staffed with capable well-paid educators. We simply must do better. It boggles my mind that something as arbitrary as a zip code determines if a child gets a first-class or second-class (or even third-class) education. It is easy to blame politics, or the teachers, or the administration, or the superintendents, or the students, or their parents.
The blame game is no longer acceptable, not that it ever was. We have to fix this problem. Access to barrier-free education, digitally and physically, should not be denied any student of any age attending any educational institution in America. I do not have all the answers, but I think almost every American will agree that it is better for our kids to get barrier-free access to good educations. Some might agree because it’s the right thing to do. Some might have more practical reasons for it such as a decent education makes kids more competitive in the marketplace. Still, others may agree because a well-educated American is the best American to ensure our place as global leaders, So, if education is something that most Americans can agree on, they should also agree on funding educational institutions equitably.
Moving forward, the things that played out in the educational arena simultaneously occurred in other parts of our society and will have long-lasting positive repercussions for it and for people who have disabilities.
We absolutely need to embrace and incorporate remote learning and work-from-home options into all that we do. It is high time we work to ensure that people capable of working do so and stop being taxing dependents on our public assistance programs and instead, by ensuring equal access to both remote learning and employment, create a contingent of independent taxpayers.
Don’t you agree? Unfortunately, even as we seem to be headed back to “normal”, I see instances of backsliding on some things that worked. Doctors and other healthcare practitioners are starting to limit or entirely jettison remote office hours. Obliging people who have disabilities to show up in person is not merely an inconvenience. The stress, expense, and logistics of physically going to an office added to that inconvenience can mean the difference between someone going to seek treatment or not. If this worked for the last year and a half, why can’t it work now?
I contend there are many silver linings to consider thanks to COVID 19. For one thing, Corporate America realized that remote work was absolutely an option and can now be seen as a reasonable accommodation for those professionals with a disability desperately wanting to work instead of depending on public assistance. The pandemic taught us that employees are responsible individuals and can accomplish their tasks and responsibilities without having to be present in an office. That is good news! This added flexibility is prompting many business leaders to rethink “office space”. However, those old beliefs and norms were also the rationale for not hiring and accommodating job candidates who have disabilities. That excuse now goes away, which is promising to a whole sector of the workforce that has been ignored for far too long. Prior to the pandemic, only 3% of the workforce did so remotely, when in truth, nearly 50% of all positions in the American workforce can be done remotely.
There are countless examples of how this pandemic forced us to rethink things and revisit how we did things because they simply had to be done. On the brighter side of things, this pandemic showed us that, as a global society, we can solve problems so long as we do not ignore the science and give in to political dogma and rhetoric. It is unfortunate that it took hundreds of thousands of deaths, business upheaval, and the physical strain of a worldwide plague to recognize this.
At My Blind Spot, we help many types of organizations figure out their next steps. As people start physically returning to the office, will your office be disability-friendly or ready? What will your office need to ensure that it does not bar people with disabilities from continuing to contribute and participate as valued employees as they have, for the first time, during this pandemic? Do you know if there are unintended barriers in your digital infrastructure that prevent professionals with disabilities from being coworkers and clients? Contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to get the conversation started.
In closing, the COVID-19 pandemic is not truly over. It is still going on all around the world morphing and mutating. If you have not gotten your COVID vaccine, please check to see if you have enough antibodies to fight this virus or just get the shot just like all the presidents, past and present, have done. And that ain’t fake news! Follow the CDC guidelines on masking in public places and where necessary and advised, practice social distancing. Finally, pandemic or not, mother was right. WASH YOUR HANDS!