COVID-19 has exposed the incredible stratification and fragility of U.S. systems.

For example, our health care system is drastically underprepared for a pandemic; simple things like protective masks are in short supply. Also, access to early virus testing has largely depended on how well-connected a person is rather than their symptoms.

As for our employment system, the more the market lags, the more people are experiencing layoffs. Locally, unemployment claims have overwhelmed the online system, causing it to stunt. Job loss cascades into people’s inability to pay for housing, food, health care, student loans, utilities and elder care.

Access to these basic needs is essential for people’s survival. Yet survival shouldn’t be dictated by how well the economy is doing or whether a pandemic overtakes our lives.

Education is another system where we see inequities laid bare. The University of Hawaii system has moved to online delivery. This may work for many students, especially those who have electronic devices and at-home wi-fi.

UH Manoa Holmes Hall. Engineering building.
Classes at UH Manoa are now all online due to COVID-19, but is that really a priority right now for many students? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

However, most students are not in family networks with vast financial reserves, which means that this plan only goes so far. Roughly half of the student population within the UH system relies on grants and scholarships; many others take out loans to finance their education. Reliance on outside financial assistance is a way of life for most students even prior to recent and increased layoffs.

Let me cut to the chase: students without access to financial reserves are more concerned about how to afford food and housing for themselves and loved ones than they are their course learning objectives.

But what we must also realize is that some of our students do not have laptops and internet service at home. The plan of online education during a pandemic with strong physical distancing recommendations doesn’t work well for students who depend on college campuses for computer labs and internet service.

Risky Choices

While UH campuses remain partially open for students to access these resources, students must make choices about putting themselves and others at risk; deciding to go to campus could result in further spread of the virus. This choice is particularly risky in the context of Hawaii, where many students live in multigenerational households that include elderly family members.

Internet companies offering 60 days of free wi-fi for households that do not already have it likely comes as a welcomed relief for some families. However, even this does not meet the needs of all our students.

Some students in the UH system are enrolled in Early College courses, which means that they attend high school and are under the age of 18. They are not necessarily in a position to make decisions for their household to install wi-fi.

Further, installing wi-fi requires a service provider to enter their home — a home that likely has at least one family member who is elderly and especially vulnerable if they contract COVID-19. For other students, installing wi-fi, even if free, is the least of their concerns.

Figuring out how to survive amidst a recessed economy and a highly contagious virus are higher priorities than their courses’ online lessons. Can we simply admit that the learning that comes out of this time is not about whatever course objectives educators have but rather about the ways that we learn to survive together?

As for the rest of the school year, rather than busying ourselves transitioning to online learning, which is particularly challenging for already under-resourced students, educators, and K-12 schools, how about we simply close out the school year right now?

Give students credit for the semester (leaving a wide range of possibilities open for how instructors and students determine grades, pass/fail being one option), pay instructors and staff, continue breakfast and lunch programs, and use the rest of our energy to collectively imagine and create systems that do not rely on growing economies and stratified access to goods in order to survive.

What would shutting down the school year and spending time building different systems look like?

While I don’t have all the answers to that, one small step in the right direction: the Hawaii Department of Education received approval to cancel federally mandated testing. This move allows us to imagine creating different modes of delivering and assessing learning — ones that don’t rely upon corporate-backed, culturally-biased, high-stakes testing to evaluate students.

For other students, installing wi-fi, even if free, is the least of their concerns.

Admittedly, this is a tiny step, but it has ramifications that spill over into school ratings, enrollment and funding, student aspirations, and academic credentialing. Using this as an example, we can begin to imagine and create alternative systems beyond education.

How might we turn profit-based systems that peddle basic necessities like housing, food, and health care into systems where the material requirements to survive are considered public goods and are guaranteed equitably to everyone?

How might we design systems wherein we don’t have to wonder if our increasingly precarious individual employment and health will result in eviction, bankruptcy, or starvation?

We have the ability to create a society wherein everyone’s basic needs are met without being tied to individual or family health, talent, or wealth. Let’s build it together.

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