Kathryn Procope, head of school at the Howard University Middle School of Mathematics and Science in Washington, D.C., has been focused on “digital poverty”—what’s now commonly referred to as the “digital divide”—since 2005. “We have always sent devices home with students,” said Procope, a 2020 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Even so, the challenges have grown greater in recent months as schools shifted to remote learning.

“Since COVID, we’ve had situations where parents had to sell the device because they needed food,” Procope said during NASSP’s State of American Education webinar. “When you’re thinking about equity and are requiring students to have access to devices and Wi-Fi, you have to make sure it happens everywhere.”

Joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten; Sunnyvale (Texas) Independent School District Superintendent Doug Williams; and Melissa Provenzano, a former middle level principal and member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, Procope outlined the challenges school leaders are facing during a school year like no other, one in which the focus continues to be on determining “what is going to be the safest solution for teachers and students.”

Procope’s school evaluated shields, plexiglass, and “NASA-level disinfecting” as part of plans to ultimately resume in-person learning, though her school began the year fully remote. That, too, has brought challenges.

“Our children are of a digital age and they’re ready, but some of their parents are not,” Procope said. “How can we provide support to our community?”

Serving a population that almost completely consists of Black students, Procope’s school community also has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

“We’ve had a lot of students lose grandparents and uncles, so this is really personal for them,” Procope said. “One of the things we have to remember is that they are resilient, but this is affecting them, too. They want adults to fix this, and we can’t. That’s where the social-emotional learning and support people are going to be very key, because our children are going to need those supports.”

The 2020–21 school year also brings with it a renewed emphasis on social justice following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Along with what they do in schools, educators will have to ensure that conversations about racial justice extend far beyond the walls of their buildings, Procope said.

“The whole conversation about anti-racism can’t only be inside the school—it has to be throughout the community,” she said. “We have to involve the families. We have to make sure the conversations are broad enough that changes are really happening. It’s really easy to change a curriculum … But are we really affecting the change that needs to happen in the community? Probably not until we have those honest conversations and we start looking at ourselves.”

Procope and other speakers focused on the importance of advocating for the funding and support public schools need to continue serving students during a challenging school year. But she, and others, remain optimistic that the crises will reaffirm their value to their communities and the nation.

“This situation has really shone a bright light on the role that public education plays in the community,” she said. “We’re not just providing academics. We’re providing food. We’re providing shelter, we’re providing social and emotional health. We’re the counselors, we’re sometimes the uncles and aunts, and we’re providing clothes. We’re the one-stop shop, and when we’re closed, the community suffers. That light is going to continue to shine bright.”

To watch The State of American Education webinar, click here.

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