Virtual education has highlighted even more financial fault lines in our society

Although some states have moved towards reopening their schools with full in-person instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model in which students rotate being on campus for two days a week, many school districts have opted to use virtual instruction. My district is one of them and has gone to great expense to provide Chromebooks to students who don’t have a computer at home as well as Wi-Fi buses to provide internet coverage in areas where students don’t have access. Despite the district’s best efforts, the global pandemic continues to highlight the differences between those who have and those who don’t.

I teach culinary arts at Laughlin High School. Each year anywhere from one-fourth to as many as one-third of my students are unable to pay their annual $40 lab fees. These fees supplement district funds and are used to pay for everything from food supplies to disposable plastic utensils to hand soap and cleaning supplies. The administration has been understanding over the years and has always supplemented my classroom budget to help cover these expenses.

Because we will be starting the 2020-2021 school year with virtual education, no culinary budget has been allocated and no lab fees will be collected. Students will have the option of producing food at home using recipes that I will provide throughout the week or doing written work. While many students will begin learning to cook or bake at home, there will also be students whose families cannot afford to buy groceries for assignments.

Feeding America reported that in 2018, 11.5 percent of our population suffered from food insecurity. With a national unemployment rate of 15 percent and the expiration of federal stimulus funds that had added $600 per week to state unemployment compensation payments, Feeding America has estimated that food insecurity could now affect an additional 17.1 million Americans.  

I don’t have the financial ability to provide food supplies to students who don’t have them. Even if I did, many of my students don’t have access to fully equipped kitchens with all of the needed small wares like measuring cups, cutting boards, rolling pins and knives that many of us take for granted. Instead of being able to cook or bake, these students will have to do written seatwork. While it’s possible to learn something about cooking through a digital book, nothing quite replaces the benefit of hands-on production experience. Books do not convey the aroma of cooked food, nor can a student simulate the process of seasoning and tasting via the internet.

I do not fault anyone for this problem. Poverty is a byproduct of capitalism — not that I am advocating for socialism or communism. I am simply observing that the pandemic has revealed yet one more fault line that permeates our nation. I wish I knew what the solution was. I do know that partisan bickering in D.C. won’t put food on anyone’s table or help to keep a roof over anyone’s head. 

David Chin is a dual certified instructor with a master's degree and 30 years of instructional experience that includes eight years abroad as an elementary teacher at two different International American schools.