Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Which of My Students Were Freezing in the Storm?

A Texas teacher sees opportunity gaps starkly in the wake of power outages
By Holly Chapman — February 23, 2021 3 min read
Eithan Colindres wears a winter coat inside on Feb. 15, 2021 after the apartment his family lives in lost power following an overnight snowfall in Houston. With the snow and ice clearing in Texas after the electricity was cut to millions as temperatures plunged as people struggled to stay warm in their unheated homes.
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I sent my 4th grade students home at the end of the week with an iPad, a charger, and instructions on how to access virtual assignments from home. An unusually severe winter storm was expected to hit Texas over the weekend, so we prepared for a week of virtual learning. As I hurried through last-minute instructions, I wondered how many of my students might not have Wi-Fi at home. About two-thirds of the students in my central Texas community of Stamford receive free or reduced-priced lunch or other public assistance.

Now, after two days without power and record-breaking temperatures that dropped below those of Anchorage, Alaska, I am more concerned about my students’ access to food, heat, and clean water than whether or not they can get on the internet.

The opportunity gap—a term that refers to the inequality of opportunity that exists between people of different races, ethnicities, geographic locations, and socio-economic classes—is flagrantly wide in times of natural disaster. While everyone in a community will feel the effect of such disasters, those who already struggle to meet basic needs are bound to experience greater suffering.

Our entire community has been without electricity—including Walmart and other stores where necessities would normally be purchased. Finding gas, bottled water, or food has meant traveling at least 15 miles to a nearby town. Cellular service has been erratic at best. My husband drove 40 miles on icy roads in search of propane and came home empty-handed.

Because we have a medically fragile child on oxygen, we own a generator and have been staying in a heated travel trailer; temperatures in our home are nearly unbearable. Since the local water treatment facility also lost power, our community ran out of clean water after the supply in the towers was depleted.

Despite all of this, families on the higher socio-economic rungs have found ways to stay warm, fed, and even entertained. My own kids have enjoyed hot meals while watching DVDs on the RV’s television. A scroll through my social-media feed, when I can connect to it, reveals pictures of some families bundled up and playing games around a fireplace or cooking breakfast on an outdoor griddle.

There are no photos of the students I worry about most. As I feed my own children, I wonder about the students who will miss the “snack bag” they usually take home from school each week through a school-sponsored food program. A glance at my daughter’s feeding pump turns my thoughts to other parents of special needs children who may not have a way to power life-sustaining equipment.

Times of crisis clarify the major problems faced by a society, and the opportunity gap is one such challenge. Even as Texas communities work to assist those affected most by a natural disaster, educators must recognize the existence of an opportunity gap and vow to do all that is necessary to close it.

In the midst of a complete blackout and with few resources available, our mayor and other community leaders managed to open a warming station, supply a generator and needed fuel for the nursing home, and are in the process of restoring access to water—all without outside help.

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Jack Fitzgerald, 14, an 8th grader at Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, plays Rocket League at home this week when school was cancelled because of icy weather and widespread power outages. Jack's family had to stay with friends briefly when their home lost power and indoor temperatures plunged.
Jack Fitzgerald, 14, an 8th grader at Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, plays Rocket League at home this week when school was cancelled because of icy weather and widespread power outages. Jack's family had to stay with friends briefly when their home lost power and indoor temperatures plunged.
Courtesy of Ginny Goldman

Educators, even those in under-resourced schools, can make a difference when it comes to the opportunity gap many of our students face. Teachers who want to help students in poverty should begin by recognizing that the opportunity gap exists in schools. Educators can work with community and school stakeholders to ensure the basic needs of vulnerable students are being met and that school policies are equitable. At the classroom level and beyond, teachers can challenge discriminatory practices that unfairly advantage some students—typically white and middle-class—over others—usually those students who are Latino, Black, and from low-income families.

The opportunity gap is an educational catastrophe, and the remedy is quality teachers who will employ creative solutions to promote an environment where all students can learn. The students we worry about most during a disaster are the same students who deserve a school culture that celebrates their perspectives and strengths. They are the same students, too, who deserve teachers committed to high standards for academic achievement for all.

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