Now is the Time. Memphis is the Place.

COVID-19 Reveals a Digital Divide and Food Instability for Many Students: What We Can Do

Photo: Shelby County Schools

What’s going on?

One educator I talked with said their school is “taking it one week at a time,” which sounds a lot like how we are all dealing with this new way of living. Getting learning resources delivered to students—in person, via Zoom meetings, or through paper packets—is just one challenge of crisis-schooling. There’s also the problem of food shortages, and those are significant and will be ongoing even when school is actually “out for summer.” 

The common theme with both of these problems is this: the pandemic has pulled back the curtain on disparity that needs to be addressed. Too many students in Memphis are growing up with far less than the best in options for health and education, and that should matter to all of us.

The challenge we’re facing:

When SCS learned they had to halt their meal distribution program because of an exposed worker, the community stepped up. The YMCA partnered with SCS to distribute more than 28,000 meals to students. The Mid-South Food Bank has also been making sure students are fed, and it’s encouraging to watch these needs be met. 

Photo: Memphis Athletic Ministries

It raises questions, though, about caring for the large numbers of families that are living with so little margin. The effect of COVID-19 on the economy will last long after stay-at-home orders are lifted, and many families already struggled to feed children during the summer. Should this be the status quo?

And getting food to people may actually be a more simple problem than addressing tech inequities. Teachers I spoke with agree that students need better access to technology—not just during a crisis, but year-round.

“I think this has all just shown me the value of all students having computers,” said Paige Gautreaux, a teacher at Hanley Elementary. “Many wealthy areas have this privilege and they’re getting to continue their education in a really impactful way. We are trying to provide that same quality with our scholars, but when they don’t have access to technology, we cannot. It’s extremely inequitable.” 

And as we all know, the best technology in the world is often worthless without Wi-Fi—creating yet another area where too many students are left behind. Shelby County Schools has identified providing access to technology as one way to support students during this time. In response, they have established the COVID-19 Relief Fund to give Wi-Fi access and digital devices to households that do not have those resources. 

However, even this solution has its problems. Alexis Singleton, a fourth grade ELA educator at Treadwell Elementary, pointed out that “there can be five to seven kids in one home, ranging from elementary to high school—how do they share one or two devices to do their work?” 

Shemana Shivers, a science teacher at Melrose High School, underscores the importance of technological literacy. “Even if they are using technology, they don’t have that computer literacy they need to really use it,” she said. 

Singleton also points out that “it shouldn’t be the community’s responsibility to give technology to students. The community should be taking care of food, health, and social needs.” Community partners like the YMCA have stepped up to provide food, and communities are working hard to make sure their neighbors are safe and cared for during self-isolation. That should be enough.” 

A vision for long-term change:

Shivers and Singleton agree that the best way to support students during a pandemic is to make sure they have all the necessary digital resources year-round. While it may be too late to impact this pandemic, there is an ongoing crisis in our schools that we have a responsibility to address.

Shivers thinks it’s great that the community is eager to get involved to help students learn during this pandemic, and is thankful for SCS’s responses so far, but that isn’t enough. “It’s great when I get immediate responses, but I need long-term solutions,” Shivers says. “Show up to board meetings, show up to vote.”

Shivers uses technology in her classroom year-round and has found that it increases students’ ability to really engage in their learning, especially when they have to miss class. Teachers across the city and across the country have had similar experiences when they embed technology into their classrooms.

So, having learned the value of technology from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to make lasting changes for our students. “If SCS doesn’t put some money and time into training teachers how to use technology, we’re just going to keep seeing the same inequalities we have today,” said Shivers.

We care, but how can we change this? 

In order to thrive, students need food, they need their social and mental health needs met, and they need access to high-quality instructional content throughout this pandemic. If the current crisis has helped you to understand more about the inequities faced by many, consider using your time and resources to create lasting change for our students by getting involved in the civic processes that control their education.

Take time to learn about the school system that has a major hand in ensuring Memphis’s future for all. Then, when this pandemic has passed, use your voice to advocate for the resources that every Memphis student needs. Start with how you vote—for national, state, and local leaders—and then look more closely at how you can support the needs of local schools, understand more about what happens at the school board, and get involved with student advocacy groups like Stand for Children.

But what can I DO now?

Okay, I get it–you clicked so you can learn how to get involved. There are three big ways you can do something right now to make sure students are getting the education they need. Though these won’t lead to the long-term changes we need, they are a step in the right direction.

Finally, make sure students know their teachers are still here to support them throughout the school closings. As Shivers put it, “We are all willing and available to support any student that’s trying to work during this crazy pandemic.”

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