Graig Weiss is the Chief Executive Officer of Foundation Academies, a high-performing charter school network in Trenton.
For the last year and half, we have seen time and again how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated longstanding inequities for families across the nation. From the virus’ disproportionate toll on communities of color, to the impact on jobs in low-income communities, to learning loss for children who have missed in-person learning, the nation is at a pivotal inflection point.
If 2021 is the year of recovery in all aspects of society, the question before us is, “How do we ensure that recovery is equitable?”
Our children – and our schools — must be at the center of it. Help from Washington is necessary – and hopefully on the way, because we as a nation are defined by how we support our most vulnerable.
Recent National Center for Education Statistics data shows egregiously disparate gaps between kids who are learning in-person versus those learning remotely. In January, about half of all white students nationwide were attending school in-person full-time, compared to only 28 percent of Black students and 33 percent of Latino students.
These gaps could cause a lost generation of students nationwide – unless we act now.
Fortunately, Congress is on the brink of a historic step to address one of the most fundamental challenges to achieving educational equity: broadband accessibility. Ensuring every family has access to affordable, high-speed internet and effectively closing the digital divide is critical to bridging wealth gaps and supporting Black and Brown communities. No longer will American “infrastructure” be limited to planes, trains, and roads. It shouldn’t be defined by physical mobility.
Infrastructure must be about economic mobility through public education as well.
But we can’t stop there. We have to think bigger if we want our kids to have the tools they need to recover from this year long-term. Teachers on the frontlines of the pandemic in our charter schools have been supporting communities in any way they can, from resource and supply distribution events to ensuring that children of essential workers can still learn despite not having a parent who can work from home. These efforts have been critical to their communities, but schools cannot fight this battle alone.
We need to redefine the safety net in America.
The American Families Plan which President Biden proposed earlier this year takes the next step to make even more meaningful investments in the communities we serve. These investments include providing universal, high-quality preschool to all three- and four- year-olds and two years of free community college. The American Families Plan also proposes nutrition assistance to families who need it most in order to expand access to healthy meals for our students. Now, it’s up to Congress to pass it through the upcoming budget reconciliation package so families don’t have to wait any longer for a full recovery.
No family should ever have to choose between educational access and their next meal, and New Jersey families cannot wait any longer for direct aid from Washington. As families head into a new school year, they need to be set up for success – Congress must act now.
In New Jersey, wealth gaps are startling, with nearly one in ten residents continuing to live in poverty, 762,530 people are facing hunger – and of them, 192,580 are children. The incomes of the wealthiest 5-percent are more than 14 times those of the lowest-income families. Nationwide, we’re living at a time in history when billionaires are flying to space even while basic services — childcare, community college, and more — are out of reach for everyday families here at home.
What this moment demands is a transformation of the norms of what the social safety net should be, and that shift must start in Washington.
President Biden has signaled that he considers these programs part of the nation’s economic foundation. Investing in them today in order to level the playing field tomorrow, but we must make that investment now.
But it’s not just up to President Biden. Congress must pass a budget that makes these critical investments in our communities. Ultimately, the stakes for our communities at this moment are incredibly high. As the country recovers from the pandemic, long-standing inequities nationwide are only worsening, academic gaps could widen, and America could lose an entire generation of kids to learning loss.
To mitigate the impact of the pandemic, we must focus on investing critical resources to the communities that need it most. The Black and Brown families in New Jersey that we serve are counting on President Biden and Congress to do the right thing for our communities and invest in a full recovery for every child in the nation.
The future depends on it.