This school year begins like no other in human history. It is August of 2020, and in the United States students are going back to school amidst a global pandemic. My child starts fifth grade on Monday as part of the Indianapolis public school district going 100% online. Thankfully, we are a 1:1 district where every student gets a digital learning device and internet assistance.
At home today we opened the brown cardboard box containing the school issued brand-new chrome laptop computer. I assembled the device, hooking up the power cord and plugged this school year into the outlet in the wall. The laptop is pristine, no finger prints, no sticky jelly spots, no dust. I set the laptop on the table ready for my child to power it up, log on, and connect to the internet.
Instead of walking down the school hallway, he walks to the table and starts tapping on the keyboard. Everything works. We are ready for Monday. It’s still summer break, so I put the laptop away in a storage space right next to our DVD library, plastic cases filled with children’s movies, stories of adventure, freedom and heroism long forgotten.
My fifth grader is the first generation in my family to have a laptop before adulthood. My first laptop came with my first full-time job after graduate school. Growing up poor as the youngest of five children with a single parent earning a public school teacher’s salary meant we were left behind and fell into the cracks of the digital divide. I remember long nights in the undergraduate computer lab, with the buzzing fluorescent lights, humming computers, and the stench of the stale air. Like survivalists stuck on a deserted island, we had no water, no food, no showers, and lived in the same clothes until we got the paper finished. Yet this island had no sunshine and no tropical breezes. It was pretty depressing. Part of the motivation for getting the paper done was the thought of liberation and being free from the computer lab.
My partner also grew up poor, raised by a single parent. He got his first laptop after we were married. Our marriage counselor gave him an old, used laptop to help get my partner’s graphic design business off the ground. When we became parents, we chose to go low-tech and tried to limit our child’s screen time. It wasn’t until third grade that he started using my iPad.
During the early weeks of the pandemic when schools closed in March to in-person learning, we bought our fourth grader his first device, an iPad and he used the iPad for school everyday. We could afford to buy one, but what if we could not afford one?
One thing I want to remember about the pandemic of 2020, is how for some families, it propelled us towards closing the digital divide. One thing we got right during this pandemic in the 2020-2021 school year is equipping students with home learning devices. I am convinced that being fluent in their use will be a key factor in future success.
When we were considering private schools, we toured some of the best in the city. I’ll never forget my surprise walking through the school and seeing classroom after classroom where students were hunched over laptops or sitting in hallways with laptops on their laps. Prime hours of learning and education happening digitally inside the school building with other students and teachers present. It makes me wonder if we were heading in this direction all along. Let’s not pretend that online learning is new or even that disruptive. Why were private schools embracing this pedagogy years ago? In fact, what might be disturbing the status quo is that now everyone has access to what previously only was available to the elite.
As a mom, what I know is that kids in my child’s school are getting laptops and internet at home for the first time. Nobody wanted this pandemic and it can still go to hell. Yet one good thing to come from this disaster is a form of digital liberation and justice.
I know I’m not the only mom who felt pride in opening the brown cardboard box, and while removing the sleek laptop hoped, “for my child, things will be better.”