There was a time when the phrase “school’s closed today” would send a ripple of excitement through students and educators. But the response to the current school closure, extended through the rest of the academic year, quickly went from excitement to exasperation and difficulty for many in the community.
COVID-19 crept up on us ever so silently, and quickly reshaped our everyday lives. While all of humanity has been affected, one of the biggest disruptions has been to the lives of our future leaders, our youth. The transition from in-person to remote, classroom to computer, wherever it has been possible, has entirely changed the learning landscape. Education — which teachers, until recently, strived to impart through active engagement — is in a precarious position.
Nowhere is this problem more pronounced than in urban neighborhoods, where students and teachers, already struggling with socioeconomic challenges, have been faced with a new one. The Indian SCENE spoke to one such teacher, Sneha Rathi, about navigating the COVID-19 upheaval as an educator, inequities in education and the Indian community’s responsibility to the Black Lives Matter movement.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
The Indian SCENE: Tell us about yourself.
Sneha Rathi: I grew up in Northville, Michigan with my parents and older brother. My parents are originally from Nepal, and they have been in this country for around thirty years. I went to the University of Michigan for undergrad, and there I studied secondary education. I was always interested in education, but through my time at Michigan I got involved in a lot of social justice work, and that work shaped my interest and drive as an educator. The reality is that our educational landscape is not equal, and those disparities impact students heavily. School funding is not even; it is based on local property taxes, among other factors. This kind of policy and distribution system leads to schools not being given the resources they need to help their students succeed, and this creates, sustains, and often widens gaps in opportunity for so many students, impacting particularly low income students and students of color.
I grew up in a town that benefitted from this unequal funding, having the resources to provide massive opportunity to students through academics, athletics, and extracurriculars. Detroit Public Schools Community District is vastly underfunded compared to its suburban counterparts. The opportunity that I had is the same opportunity that all students deserve, regardless of who they are or where they live.
IS: What and where do you teach?
SR: I am a Human Centered Engineering and Design teacher at The School at Marygrove, a new application school within Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD). Marygrove is a part of a P-20 Partnership program between DPSCD, the University of Michigan’s School of Education, The Kresge Foundation and several other partners. Our school is a teaching school, modeled after teaching hospitals, with the goal of preparing urban educators, and I am its first resident.
IS: In your traditional classroom, what is the end in mind for students?
SR: In my classroom, students learn design and engineering through project-based learning, designing data-driven solutions that address problems situated within our school and their communities. The problems we solve are centered around their own lives and the lives of those they care about. I want my students to feel like their identities and experiences are not only valued in the classroom but necessary to the work that we do. After all, they are the agents for positive change and innovators in their own communities and in the world.
IS: Given the COVID-19 challenge, how are you managing to persevere? What specifically are you doing in your classroom to sustain good education?
SR: Well, in my class, we are working on an ‘at home engineering project’ where students are taking on different challenges they or their community have faced during this time. I want them to feel empowered to make a difference even in this situation, thinking about how they can think about problems like social connection, health and wellness, and adapting spaces in their own homes and communities. Additionally, I am asking them to look at some of the incredible work that engineers and designers have been doing during this time, and some of the problems they’ve been trying to solve. Since starting distance learning, we have discussed several issues and some of the problem solving that has been done around them, from misinformation during the pandemic to ventilator and PPE shortages.
IS: And what measures has Detroit Public Schools as a whole taken to mitigate this setback in student learning?
SR: DPSCD is offering online distance learning as a means for student enrichment and connecting with students during this trying time. Though not mandatory, we highly encourage students to participate to learn and prep for their next school year. Making work mandatory is challenging and often inequitable as not all of our students have the same access to technology. The district also has paper packets of work available for pick up for students so they can still learn regardless of their access. Our students are showing up to online classes and working hard as best they can, and I am so proud of them.
IS: I can see that you’ve been put to the test of managing inequality during this tough time. Can you elaborate on the level of inequality, and how you and DPS are narrowing this gap?
SR: Inequitable distribution of funding, among many issues, has made it historically challenging for DPSCD to serve its students and families in the same way that surrounding suburban districts are able to do. That inequity is exposed especially during this time, as many students have very limited access to the internet. Several students are accessing school only through phones rather than computers or tablets that would make doing work much easier. While many other districts have been able to more quickly provide technology to students who need it, due to such high need, our district faced a large challenge to get students the resources they need. Thankfully, DPSCD has been able to secure a $23 million investment to start giving 51,000 students and their families subsidized internet for six months and tablets starting in June, better connecting students to their teachers and school community.
IS: Why did you choose to be an educator, Sneha?
SR: Passion! I am passionate about working with young people and I believe that education is central to creating an equitable society. In the United States, often unaddressed histories of oppression have created and enforced social, political, and economic inequity among people based on their various identities and experiences. Schools in this country face the same issues, and because of this, students are often not provided with equal opportunities to succeed. As a teacher, my goal is to work within communities to help fill some of these gaps in opportunity.
IS: As an educator, what are your thoughts on the protests that have followed George Floyd’s death?
SR: The police in this country murdered George Floyd. They murdered Breonna Taylor. And they have murdered so many more black people throughout this country’s history. I support the protests happening around the country right now. The people of this country are frustrated and they are making their voices heard. Black people should not have to fight just to have others acknowledge that their lives matter. That is the baseline. It should not be a point of argument.
These last few weeks have been challenging. I do not want to speak for my students; I am not Black, and I don’t want to claim that experience as my own. I will say that racism has been built into the fabric of this country; it impacts everything we do. In small and large ways, it has impacted my life as a Desi woman in this country, and that level of discrimination is not even a fraction of what Black people have faced for centuries now. My students have been faced with racism their whole lives, and it is our privilege to think otherwise.
IS: How should our Indian-American community respond to the Black Lives Matter movement?
SR: I think our community has a responsibility to support not only the Black Lives Matter movement, but also actively support Black communities. Many Desi people can point to a specific moment of discrimination that they’ve experienced at some point in this country, whether that is as new immigrants, in jobs, in schools, or in so many other spaces. What we experience can be painful and leave real impact on our lives, but is nothing in comparison to what many Black people are faced with in this country. We do not carry the trauma and negative impacts of things like slavery and segregation that have actively oppressed Black people. We also as a community have our own anti-blackness to address. We have been taught consciously and subconsciously through media, stereotypes, and so many other places, to think about, talk about, and act towards black communities. We need to do the work of unlearning that, educating ourselves, and listening to Black people. We need to start having tough conversations in our homes and with our friends and loved ones. We need to donate our time, money, and resources; staying silent on these issues does nothing to help people, it makes us complicit to the racism and white supremacy pushed upon Black people. We as a community have the ability to create so much positive change, and it is our responsibility to do so.