For more than two decades, the achievement gap in public schools, between white students and students of color, has vexed educators, politicians and community leaders in Maryland and across the U.S.

But if you think the achievement gap has been bad for as long as you can remember, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated every last inequity in our education system. Distance learning, an aspirational concept at best, is largely elusive at public schools in low income neighborhoods.

Distance learning may work very well at the college level. It may work fine for high school students and middle schoolers. But the results at the elementary school level are mixed at best.

If you are a middle-class parent with a professional job and are working from home during the pandemic, watching over your kid, making sure she’s dialed in to class time and doing her work — while it may be require a great degree of juggling on your part — is still doable.

But what about the children of parents who are still leaving the house to go to work every day? What about children whose parents speak no English? What about children whose parents are disengaged, strung out, ill from the coronavirus or other burdens of life?

Who is watching over them? Who is making sure they sign into Zoom at the appropriate hour? Who is leaning on them to complete their class work? More basically, who is ensuring that they have functioning technology, like a laptop and internet service? Who is telling them to wake up in the morning, who is ensuring that they are fed, that they are not freaked out by the changes all around us?

Schools and school districts are lumbering along with their distance learning plans. They probably work for some students and don’t for plenty of others — particularly at the top and the bottom of the academic scale.

Whenever students return to the classroom — and who knows when that might be? — the inequities will be ever more apparent, and the level of classroom instruction all the more ragged because of this long stretch of distance learning.

Students, especially in homes where a premium isn’t placed on academic learning, can lose their skills and knowledge in an alarmingly short period of time. Never mind summer — a 10-day Christmas vacation can be disastrous.

So imagine what is being lost over this extended period of absence, even with the best efforts of teachers to reach and teach their students. In some classrooms, teachers will be facing a roomful of kids who have regressed dramatically.

This isn’t an entreaty to bring kids back to the classroom sooner rather than later. Quite the contrary.

Unless and until there’s widespread COVID-19 testing and vaccinations available, classrooms will be hotspots of viral contagion. Can anyone imagine keeping elementary school kids from hugging their friends, picking their noses, and coughing all over each other? And what about older kids, and their natural inclination to hang out together and, um, couple up?

These are life and death questions for our educators and community leaders to contemplate. So here’s one vote for schools reopening later rather than sooner.

But back to the topic of inequality.

Lost in the last-minute legislative fights over the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, the extensive and expensive education reform package, and the inevitable cries in the face of economic calamity that the state simply cannot afford it at this time, was the genesis of the plan: The notion that the Maryland school system was failing way too many kids.

William E. “Brit” Kirwan, the erstwhile chancellor of the University System of Maryland, who headed the commission that produced the blueprint after three painstaking years of work, consistently sounded the alarm that being the fifth best school system in the U.S. just wasn’t good enough. That there is a moral imperative and an economic imperative to invest what it takes to improve the schools and reach the maximum number of students — especially those less fortunate and in danger of being left behind.

Regardless of what Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) decides to do with the blueprint legislation and funding schemes in the next week, regardless of what’s available to fund the reforms, it seems, regrettably, almost inevitable that some of these education initiatives will be put off. But the impetus for them should not be forgotten, even in the midst of a pandemic and an economic meltdown.

Karen B. Salmon, the state superintendent of education, was set to retire this summer, but she’s sticking around for another year, to maintain continuity at the Maryland State Department of Education. At some point, the state Board of Education will resume its search for a successor. Here’s hoping that board members will place a priority on finding someone committed to closing the vast and growing inequities in state school system — and with a sense of how to get there.

And the 2022 elections aren’t all that far off. Too many of our political debates over education in Maryland during the past several years have become food fights over taxes, air conditioning, school start dates, and “thugs” in the teachers’ union.

It would be nice, for once, if we got candidates for high office who talked, honestly and thoughtfully, about closing the achievement gap in public schools. It would be nice if we have candidates who are themselves products of public schools and who send or have sent their children to public schools.

With the American economy crashing at frightening speed, it’s inevitable that our next few elections are going to largely be about how to pick up the pieces and ignite some semblance of a recovery.

But having serious and rational discussions about how to make a dent in education inequities that have only been made worse by this terrible pandemic seems every bit as critical.

[email protected]