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Sultan: Education envy hits close to home

Sultan: Education envy hits close to home

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Disinfecting education

A crew of custodial staff clean a classroom at Richard A. Simpson Elementary School in Arnold on Nov. 5. 

Photo by Colter Peterson,

Like most parents with school-aged kids, I think my kids’ public schools do a fine job.

There’s a longstanding American belief that “my local school is great, but most other public schools perform poorly.”

This pandemic has thrown a wrench in that paradoxical belief system. For the first time, I heard from tons of middle-class and affluent parents pointing out how their kids were getting shortchanged by their own schools. I tended to agree with them or at least sympathized with their concerns.

Most students needing special education services were not getting what they needed through virtual schooling. In some schools that reopened with the vast majority of students returning, the few who stayed with online learning were treated like an afterthought. It was hard to watch students in neighboring districts continue to attend in-person classes while your own kids were isolated at home for months on end. Some districts made accommodations to protect their students' GPAs during virtual schooling, like canceling final exams, while others failed record levels of kids.

Even though I understood and appreciated the reasons why virtual schooling has been necessary in many circumstances, I also felt the pangs of education envy for the first time.

I, too, wished my children were in a school that had all the resources and space it needed to safely educate them, so they would not miss out on what some of their peers still had. And we’re among the lucky ones where teachers have gone above and beyond for their students. The quality of education kids are getting during this ongoing pandemic has even more elements outside our control — how well does your community adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, how tech savvy are their teachers, how fast and reliable is your internet service, how agile and responsive is the administration?

All of sudden, inequity landed on the doorsteps of those unaccustomed to it.

Inequality is another way of saying unfairness. Our society has long tolerated unfairness in schooling when it’s based on how much money people have. Kids from middle-class and wealthy families get better education, and kids from poor families tend to get worse. It’s been that way for so long, that it’s hard for some people to imagine it could be any other way.

But in this pandemic, people of the relatively same socio-economic class saw their children getting affected in unequal ways. And when we perceive that someone in the same boat as us is getting something better for no apparent reason, it provokes a strong reaction.

In the Rockwood School District, a group of parents became so incensed over virtual schooling, they threatened to sue the district and openly insulted the teachers and administrators online. Last fall, more than 200 people protested outside the home of St. Louis County Executive Sam Page demanding that he allow high school sports teams to compete.

It was strange to watch adults agitating for youth athletics while students were still shut out of classrooms. But their outrage was about more than just youth sports, it was about what people feel entitled to.

Parents who felt their schools were denying their children opportunities argued that the risk to their children from virtual school far outweighed the risk of a deadly virus to the teachers and staff.

That’s still debatable.

What’s more clear is that the students who have lost the most ground educationally are the most marginalized — those from lower-income families, those with disabilities and those living in the most underserved areas. All the inequities that we know are baked into our education system, which affect the entire life outcomes of students, have been amplified and exacerbated by this pandemic.

The thing is, it’s hard to get other parents to care much about the plight of students who have less than their own. I wonder if we will remember that sting of unfairness, the desperation of wanting more for your kids, once this pandemic is over.

Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but what if this close encounter with inequity challenges our indifference to unfairness elsewhere?

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Related to this story

Beginning next week, an additional 550,000 Missourians will be eligible to get the vaccine — including teachers. Perhaps the most ethical way for educators in big cities to spend their upcoming spring breaks would be to join in these Vaccine Hunger Games: Those who have the time and skills to hunt down a rural vaccine, and the means to drive hundreds of miles to get it, ought to do so.

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