Education leaders claim that we are now ready for the new normal in education: our teachers have prepared for shifts to technology-heavy instruction and our learners for autonomous study. Our homes are becoming virtual school campuses.

Yet in our eagerness to project a positive outlook on education, don’t our strategies disregard and therefore aggravate what could very well be the most serious effects of the coronavirus health emergency?

Amid what the World Health Organization describes as an unprecedented calamity for mental health globally, there have been calls for an academic freeze, lament from teachers about lack of resources, and questions about a bullheaded approach to ensuring continuity in learning.

Alarmingly, these criticisms are being described as counterproductive. But it is precisely this dismissiveness that exposes the dearth of efforts to make adapting education to the pandemic just and equitable for all.

At the outset, let us acknowledge that we are in the mode of emergency remote learning, not that of normal online education. There are important differences between the two, according to a US education report. Online education involves extensive planning, a fully ready faculty, and learners who, before participating, have arranged their lives to succeed in it. Emergency remote learning involves participants who are forced to reanimate their face-to-face interactions (and expectations) in a new virtual environment.

As in many stop-gap measures, individuals rarely prepare for emergency remote learning but are nonetheless expected to participate in it, and what is lost is not just countable such as class hours but also observable as deficits in quality: once-familiar strategies in teaching and learning fail us.

The government argues that no one is actually prepared for this, and that we are simply doing the best we can. We should just buckle down and face the challenges head on. This attitude is, however, sadly simplistic at the least and damaging at worst.

Surviving school in the middle of a pandemic differs for different people based on their circumstances. Ignored for instance is the gender question. Does the pandemic affect and burden women differently than it does men? The categorical answer is yes. No less than United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres has emphasized that women pay a steeper price for disasters, and in this pandemic, both surviving and recovery will burden them more.

Their hardships are exacerbated by dire prospects in a world economy that is expected to enter a recession. A downturn in employment figures means profound difficulties for our families, and in turn, for women who often have to be workers, caregivers, and community managers all at once. Simply put, women carry the biggest burden in this shift in education, and yet our response seems devoid of ways to protect them in the new normal.

The technology gap also affects people differently not just in terms of access but also in terms of adaptability to digital resources. The digitally slow are further left behind by the digitally skilled even when their goals, like learning, have no intrinsic relation to technology. In India, for example, digitally slow learners were left behind after the country embarked on a digital transformation in 2015.

These are fundamental concerns of justice and equality. They might seem more rhetorical than pragmatic. But they are not being raised to foil efforts to make the most of our circumstances. It is precisely during crises that leaders must effect decisive interventions to protect people’s welfare, which hinges not just on stop-gap but on transformative measures.

To argue that these fundamental social issues are not the burden of the education system; or worse, for the system to bank on our learners and teachers to simply adapt and work hard would be incredibly misguided and suggests a policy bias against poor and working class families.

Research has shown the far-reaching impact of privilege on the adaptability of learners. An invariably greater proportion of students from more affluent backgrounds are able to succeed. Their advantage is based on normal terms. Amid a pandemic, the learners who will succeed are not the ones who will just work harder, but those whose family incomes are big enough, whose parents are healthy enough, and whose communities are safe enough to ensure success.

Policymaking should never be motivated by romantic notions of our people’s resilience and struggles rather than by structural changes. “We learn as one” is more than a catchphrase. It is a reminder of the importance of education in our national life (assigned the biggest budget under the Constitution): more than any other public institution, education is the great equalizer. The intergenerational burden of promoting egalitarianism in society becomes lighter with each Filipino’s graduation.

The transition to the new normal in education must be gender-sensitive and rights-based, answering the difficult questions. Beyond minimizing disruption in learning or customizing contents and methods to virtual classrooms, we must foresee and prevent the worst consequences of inequality, for which a vaccine has yet to prove effective.