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We care about you, but there are other priorities at the moment…

The mandated shutdown of the Worcester public schools was an understandable move in the face of a pandemic no one understood.

Yet, it was reasonable to expect that school closure wouldn’t mean closing the book on our student’s education.

A Boston Globe story, however, seems to suggest that the city was inexcusable tardy in providing students the technology necessary to continue their education at home.

Such a delay, I’m sure everyone knew, would disproportionately impact black and brown students, given their relative lack of resources.

So, what went wrong? Who is to be blamed?

Some, for example, will no doubt question Superintendent Maureen Binienda’s leadership. Yet, Ms. Binienda feels that under the circumstances she rose to the task as best as she could.

“We were not prepared for a pandemic,” she told me in an interview.

“It was a big lift in training teachers on how to do remote learning. We basically in 13 weeks had three different changes in required learning.

“Unless you were in the arena for this, you would not believe exactly how much work every teacher had to do. And they really took it on. They weren’t going to let kids fail.”

Blame may fall on the school committee. The members with whom I spoke were nuanced in their views of what may or may not have gone wrong.

They acknowledged hearing concerns about Worcester’s distribution of Chromebooks and remote learning strategies through the grapevine.

“The number of calls we receive from parents was the first indication that there was something bigger going on here,” School Committee Member Laura Clancy said.

“We shouldn’t have been getting so many calls.”

Yet, she and her colleagues didn’t raise the issue publicly, as say Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell did when she learned that there were issues around the distribution of Chromebooks in her city.

Worcester School Committee members seem to have been more understanding.

“We definitely let the administration knew how we felt; that we wanted the Chromebooks out much earlier than later,” Ms. Clancy said.

“But we also knew that even if we gave out the Chromebooks, many, many of our families didn’t have the Wi-Fi to support.

School Committee Member Dianna Biancheria pointed to the change the state made in first saying schools would close until May 4 and then extending the closure for the school year. She also noted everyone’s unfamiliarity with the pandemic as factors in the slow rollout of Chromebooks.

“I truly think that we had certain circumstances that at the time were unique,” she said.

“We don’t’ own our Chromebooks, so you have to look at things a little different. We tried to do the best that we could.

“We had daily conference calls, and we would get updates. During those conversations, there were many things they wanted to accomplish.

“One was that we were able to have food in our community for as many people who needed it, so that was one of our priorities.

“The education piece was a priority, but every day we heard about people who were getting sick, like health care workers, and then you got a list of who died.

“So, when you distribute the Chromebooks, they had certain areas they were looking at, people were dying in our city, and we were trying to prevent additional contacts, prevent the virus from spreading…”

School Committee Member Jack Foley said some things could have been done differently, but that the administration and teachers for the most part seem to have performed well under the circumstances.

“No one has ever faced a pandemic, and having to deal with this required people to figure out solutions to problems that we had never had to figure out before,” he said.

“So, I am not going to be critical of our first response and some of the things that we have done here. I also think that teachers, most of them, the far majority of them, really work hard to make sure they had connection.”

Mr. Foley noted that some Worcester schools distributed their school-based Chromebooks to the students that needed them within the first week that the schools closed.

“Most of the teachers could tell you with absolute certainty about who had technology at home, and there were more effective ways (FedEx, Amazon) of delivering the technology than we did,” he said.

“Clearly, from what we heard from families and teachers, there was confusion and changing standards and expectations about how remote learning was going to be delivered.

“That’s unfortunate.

“What I do know, and what I can point is the technology piece. We heard four weeks in that we had a large surplus(revenue)and that we were able to buy a million dollars’ worth of Chromebooks which would enable us to get one to every family that needed one, but it didn’t happen.”

The finger of blame could be directed at other actors, too.

 The city’s medical team, for example, held up the delivery of chrome books as part of its effort to fight the surge coronavirus. The teacher’s union failed to finalize a Memorandum of Agreement on remote learning.

That particular failure occurred because the union conditioned the signing of the MOU on the administration settling contracts agreements on personnel evaluations, and teachers, assistant principals and coaches’ salaries.

You could also blame the school’s civil rights lawyer. She seemed to have been more focused on protecting students from teachers and teachers from students than she was in helping the system provide an equitable education in remote learning.

And you could also finger Charter Communication, which has the WPS as a client but which wouldn’t work with the city in providing hotspots to families who were in arrears on their bills.

Nevertheless, by focusing on individual actors I believe we are missing the bigger picture.

There is a ceiling to the city’s empathy for black and brown students.

And this is true whether we go back five, 20 or more years, or whether it’s about superintendent searches, police in schools or school discipline.

And we should start with this empathy ceiling to understand what happened here because this ceiling can be found in every city department, many of its institutions, and the perspectives of a lot of residents.

So, when city leaders, institutions and residents act in ways that are detrimental to communities of color, they do so less out of animus and more in adherence to the city’s impose limitations on serving those communities.

That’s why the city delaying the education of 1,400 students–some among the most vulnerable in the system–wasn’t given a second thought.

People were just doing their jobs.

That’s why, for example, no one challenged Dr. Hirsch’s decision to delay the rollout of Chromebooks, or tried to find an alternative delivery system.

I won’t be surprised if many view the superintendent’s action and the school committee’s response as being perfectly reasonable. Both acted well within the city’s enforced limitations on serving its communities of color.

I’m hearing now that things will go better in the fall.

“We need to get fully electronic,” Ms. Clancy said.

“We need to have kids one-on-one with chrome books. I’ve asked for parents to be trained on Google classrooms, the platform we used, over the summer. We have a lot work to do. We didn’t get it perfect, but we can learn from our mistakes.”

I want to believe her. I do.

But how can I expect a community which, by design, is tone deaf to the needs of students of color in the best of times do good by them in the worst of times

2 Replies to “THE EMPATHY CEILING”

  1. Nice to see an accurate writing of what has taken place. I was disappointed in the Boston Globe’s article for it was one sided and facts were incorrect. Everyone has their opinion on what to do or not to do, but remember, there is no manual written on how to handle this World Wide crisis. Rest assure that our superintendent, who is a tireless worker, will do her utmost to have our children, with the assistance of parents, to have a success school year this fall.

    1. Nice to see an accurate writing of what has taken place. I was disappointed in the Boston Globe’s article for it was one sided and facts were incorrect. Everyone has their opinion on what to do or not to do, but remember, there is no manual written on how to handle this World Wide crisis. Rest assure that our superintendent, who is a tireless worker, will do her utmost to have our children, with the assistance of parents, to have a success school year this fall.

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