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Will this year leave us more than hand sanitizer stations?

Originally published March 16, 2021 in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

I read recently that jet propulsion engineers landed a rover on a planet that required a journey of seven months, virgin to any human exploration. The level of accuracy and difficulty of this 300 million mile trip to Mars was described as akin to shooting an arrow from Washington to Texas and hitting a bull’s-eye. The rover had to descend to the surface of Mars at rocket speeds, while battling gale-force winds, razor blade craggy terrain and heat comparable to the sun.

How is it that we can put a remote-controlled science lab on Mars but when it comes to our educational system, we’re using guts and guesses at best in bringing equal learning opportunities to students?

The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t created the gap in education, it’s simply revealed it.

Our country’s wealth disparity is increasing: The distance between rich families and poor is growing every year and has for decades. Education is increasingly available through online platforms, and accessibility to books and meetings via websites and portals has risen; however, the children in low socioeconomic brackets can’t get a consistent wireless internet signal to log on to do research for an online book report. Meanwhile, we face a global pandemic and families with means secured tutors and specialized pod learning and fled en masse to private schools. The gap revealed.

Even so, everyday citizens don’t seem to be too concerned with all the planning and decisions required to land this ship.

Interest in public education policy is among the lowest concerns at the polls. Citizens have become unconcerned with the seemingly trivial nature of the local educational process, such as school boards and representatives, while national figures steal the spotlight from our communities with media coverage resembling heavyweight boxing matches. Civic duty has been drowned out by celebrity political debates.

As the coronavirus has drawn a spotlight back to local educational leaders, will we maintain collective interest as the trauma of the pandemic fades?

The humdrum, yet complex, policymaking of expanding wireless infrastructure to remote areas, providing healthy balanced school meals, identifying at-risk children in need of counseling and services, and devising teacher-led, classroom-based strategies to pull them to grade level are the small overlooked steps to success. Yet the effectiveness of these efforts requires laser precision and creative brilliance on par with rocket science.

Can we address the reality that our teachers are among the lowest-paid professional workers, most even qualifying for low-income housing? Will school budgets be weighted even more toward paying for mass academic test measures in an attempt to analyze a problem to its death? Can we view teachers as intelligent, capable assets instead of political punching bags?

Hundreds of families have withdrawn their children from public education and fled to private schools amid the confusion and frenzied efforts of local schools to educate in the pandemic. Some have moved homes to seek a better school district elsewhere. This leaves some school districts seeing enrollment decline at record rates. Meanwhile, a large percentage of families across the country have suffered reduced work hours, pay cuts and even a complete loss of income and are evermore dependent on the local public school system.

With these dueling trajectories, how will we come out of the struggle with the coronavirus in response to the education of our children? Will the only remnants of this year be more hand sanitizer stations and roped-off water fountains?

The way we have achieved great things in science and technology is through great effort put toward goals that were dreamed and once thought unattainable, with the help of the brightest minds, appropriate funding and adequate freedom to try and fail without being written off as a failure. The same rigor and goal of excellence should guide our children’s schooling. We have expected little from our state public education system, and we have reaped what we have sown.

In the rover landing on Mars, the scientists have determined that the most dangerous part of the mission wasn’t the rocket launch or the flight of about 300 million miles or the compiling of billions of data sets, but rather it’s the final moments of landing, the last few feet. Can we engage in the fight to create a Georgia where every child in public education can thrive as we draw near to the end of this pandemic? The choice is ours; will we simply accept the gap in education as a reality or utilize our platform as citizens and reinvest in the fight?


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