In Camden, providing all students with the quality education they deserve is challenging in the best of times. In a crisis, the heaviest burden falls on our most vulnerable populations. Prior to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, America’s public school system was unequal. Today, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, those existing inequities in our system have been exacerbated.
It’s up to Superintendents and their teams to work with city and state leaders to find solutions at these challenging times. Today, although much work remains to be done, I’m proud to say that we are working collaboratively, operating with a fierce sense of urgency, and putting our children first. I offer two examples:
First, food. In Camden, free breakfast and lunch programs are available to 100% of students. Research shows that nearly half of the total calories for many low-income students comes from school meals. As a District, as soon as we made the decision to close schools, our top priority became ensuring that these meal programs remained fully available to families.
We turned our collective attention to the operations of setting up efficient, safe, and accessible sites where families could pick up ‘grab and go’ meals. All three of our public school sectors - district, charter, renaissance — worked collaboratively to get these sites up and running for our 15,000 students.
In the first week of the crisis, we sought out feedback from families and reviewed data, and ultimately added sites and adjusted schedules to ensure that all families’ needs were met. Today, we have 13 meal sites, evenly distributed across the city and across all three school types. Meals are available at each site for any child, regardless of which school they attend.
Second, instruction. Our children deserve to have continuity in their learning, and we have worked around the clock to ensure that remote learning is meaningful for students, accessible to parents, and allows for continued student-teacher interaction.
Thanks to our dedicated teachers, all students received grade-level packets to continue their learning while at home. Some educators have also developed creative strategies for remaining connected to students, sharing story times, music lessons, and morning announcements via video. Across the country, as parents wake up to a new reality of homeschooling, the respect and admiration we have for our nation’s educators will rise dramatically. As it should.
This crisis has also shone a light on a significant barrier to providing quality instruction at home: the digital divide. A survey found that only 30% of Camden students have internet access and a laptop or tablet available at home.
Unlike the meal program, this is not a problem that can be solved overnight -- but already, partners are stepping up. Internet providers like Comcast are providing temporary access to free Wi-Fi for low-income families and creating mobile hot-spots. Last week, the New Jersey legislature acted quickly to pass a bill enabling the Department of Education to provide grants to schools to bridge the digital divide.
If signed by the Governor, this grant program will provide districts with critical assistance in expanding access to equipment and technology. Here in Camden, we remain committed to expanding technology access for all children, and we will pursue all avenues in service of this goal.
All Superintendents have to wear many hats: we manage complex systems that involve facilities, human resources, academics, food, and transportation, among many other demands. Most of us never expected to be on the front lines of a public health emergency. But here we are, and as we and our teams scramble to meet the needs of our families, let’s continue to be the problem-solvers, advocates, and role models that our students deserve.
Katrina T. McCombs, MAEd., MPA, is the state district superintendent for the Camden City School District.