The COVID-19 crisis is making the contrast between haves and have-nots more apparent than ever. After Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all K-12 schools to suspend in-person classes to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, one of our freelance writers, Richard Finch Jr., contacted several area schools to find out how students were making the transition to online instruction.
He produced an informative—if discouraging—four-part series. A few schools, Rich wrote, were coping well. For instance, my alma mater, Serra Catholic High School, a private institution in a well-off neighborhood of McKeesport, had a Google Chromebook available for each of its approximately 300 students in grades nine through twelve, whose families each pay about $10,000 a year in tuition. Their switch to online learning happened with only a few minor stumbles.
Less than a mile away, however, McKeesport Area School District not only didn’t have enough laptops or tablets for all of its 3,400 students, but a quick survey by administrators determined that about 1,000 of them either didn’t have an up-to-date computer at home, or lacked the high-speed Internet connection necessary to support online learning. The nearby South Allegheny and Clairton City school districts—serving 1,500 and 800 students, respectively—faced similar challenges. Rich reported teachers in those districts were photocopying paper packets so their pupils could continue their schoolwork.
While our students are struggling because of COVID-19 shutdowns, so are recent graduates. Until the 1980s, the main path out of poverty for people in the Mon Valley was a job in a steel mill or other factory. When those giants downsized, moved off-shore or closed altogether, the children of laid-off factory workers were urged to get a college education.
That road to a middle-class life has become narrower and more treacherous. As four-year college degrees become commonplace, some pundits are calling them the “new high-school diploma,” meaning the minimum education level a young adult is expected to complete. Because of the rising cost of tuition, a bachelor’s degree is now more expensive and yet less valuable (in terms of landing a desirable job) than it used to be.
In the 1980s, the Reagan Administration promised us that service industries—retail, entertainment and hospitality—would help replace industrial manufacturing as an economic driver. Those industries have provided a route out of poverty for some young adults here. In fact, as Pittsburgh developed a reputation among “foodies,” brewpubs, craft distilleries and high-end restaurants have been among the bright spots in the Mon Valley—or at least until COVID-19.
The pandemic has decimated hospitality and dining jobs; restaurants are limping along, offering take-out orders and employing only a fraction of their usual staff, while Pittsburgh’s NPR station, WESA, reported in April that local hotel occupancy rates dropped from 65 percent to seven percent.
Knowing all of that, what kind of career advice can we honestly offer young people here? And should we be surprised when any of them end up using drugs to escape or turning to crime to earn money?
I’m actually heartened by the fact that the vast majority of them are great kids, many of whom are doing incredible things. McKeesport Area High School, for instance, has a thriving robotics club, top-notch graphic arts and music students (I’ve seen and heard their work) and a technology program that’s preparing young people for a variety of careers, including a building-trades program that has constructed entire homes for local veterans. Their achievement in spite of adversity is a testament to their families, their teachers and the fabled Pittsburgh work ethic.
But why should it be so hard for them? Any teacher will tell you it’s hard to get a kid to focus on geometry or conjugating verbs when he or she is hungry and tired. As a result, too many students here score near the bottom on the state’s standardized math, reading and science tests. Of 671 Pennsylvania public high schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report on the basis of test scores, only one of the eight nearest to McKeesport placed above 400—and the township where it’s located, North Huntingdon in Westmoreland County, is among the wealthiest local communities (median household income of $73,878, versus the Pittsburgh metropolitan area median of $59,710), as well as one of the whitest (about 97 percent).
Many students who were unable to easily switch to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic have effectively lost one-third of their education for the school year. How much further behind other Pennsylvania students will they be next year? And the year after? And do we just accept that as the price they have to pay for not being lucky enough to be born into a richer school district a few miles away?