Americans might as well admit that we really are fine with the concept of the haves and the have nots even during a pandemic. Whether it’s in our housing, financial, transportation, health or education systems, Black and Latinx families and those from low-income backgrounds are experiencing the coronavirus crisis in vastly different ways than any other racial demographic. Inequity is simply a part of the American story, but it shouldn’t be.
In normal times, inequities are easily seen, but their costs are masked. In times of crisis, particularly a global pandemic, those costs are gravely apparent. Today, they are on display in our education system. Rampant school closures have left district leaders, principals, and administrators scrambling to ensure their students have some form of educational continuity as well as access to food.
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New processes have to be devloped for distributing meals along with processes for handing out limited computers. They have had to find ways to ensure those computers function with WIFI access and provide technological support. And it has been no small task to ensure students have internet access so they can continue some semblance of learning for however long they will be out. As each day goes by, the gravity of just how inequitable our educational system is becoming more evident.
Just consider what a teacher in our nation’s capital shared with me: “We’ve had to determine what to do about multiple siblings. We have a family with seven children at our school. We didn’t give each kid a Chromebook. We had to divide it up.”
A leader in New Jersey shared that her district only gave students learning packets for three weeks because no one planned on being out this long. She told me, “Our teachers were not prepared for this. My teachers have had no exposure to meeting tools and only a few know about Google classroom.”
Both of these schools are Title I schools, meaning they serve high numbers of students from low-income backgrounds and receive federal funds to help support those students. One has a large immigrant population and students with disabilities. These are just two of the many stories being shared around the country about the current state of our education system.
But then there’s also what a parent in Chicago told me. “We’re in private school so there’s no break in schooling now that it’s closed. My son is a ninth grader. School closed on a Friday and he had a test online Tuesday. School didn’t stop.”
For more privileged students, it’s business as usual because their schools have the necessary equipment and support mechanisms, along with teachers who are trained, to move dexterously between face-to-face and distance learning.
I have spent over 20 years as a teacher and continue to work closely with practitioners facing equity challenges daily. The level of inequities students across this nation are facing are no surprise to me and should not be to others.
Every state and school district across this nation is well aware of the deficiencies in their digital affairs. They know what equipment they have, how much they have, and the state of functionality. So, when this crisis hit, school leaders knew whether they could transition seamlessly to distance learning or whether a bridge to distance learning would be necessary because one-to-one computers were not possible. They also knew their most vulnerable students would be at heightened risk because they did not possess the necessary educational tools for support on a regular basis and having to support them in a distance learning environment would be nearly impossible.
And yet, the need to address and erase the digital divide has been a clarion call in education for nearly 30 years. Indeed, there have been improvements, but these stories convey the disparate state of our system. Similarly, The Education Trust for many years has been calling attention to funding inequities between high and low-poverty school districts as well as between districts that serve the most and those that serve the fewest students of color. While some states have adjusted funding formulas to close funding gaps, most continue to spend less on the very students who could benefit most from additional supports in their schools.
Bottom line: We continue to provide inequitable educational experiences and our most vulnerable students struggle the most because, as a nation, we continue to be largely OK with the inequities we know exist.
There’s no doubt that COVID-19 has stretched us to our limits and in so doing presents us with a new challenge. We are now forced to reckon with the realization that far too many students, those from every race and ethnicity and income level, will return to school even further behind, not because they cannot do the work, but because the system that promised to educate them cannot because it lacked the will to ensure leaders and teachers were properly trained with access to adequate resources.
Perhaps now, when millions of students are facing prolonged educational disruption, and when many of the students we believed were being well served are now being underserved — just like those we’ve allowed to be undereducated — we’ll do something.
Perhaps now we will craft a nimbler, more responsive education system that works for every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, family income or ability and not just those fortunate enough to attend private school or have their number pulled out of a hat for a spot in a coveted charter school. Perhaps when children go back to school (and they will go back), they will return to an environment that includes the best parts of this disrupted time coupled with the best parts of a face-to-face educational experience.
We have been fine with educational inequity long enough. COVID-19 has opened many eyes to the growing inequities far too many children have been facing. Let’s work together to create a new system where we are no longer just fine with some having and some not having, pandemic or not.
Dr. Tanji Reed Marshall is director of P-12 practice at The Education Trust – a civil rights education organization dedicated to closing opportunity gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. Marshall is a longtime educator and advocate for traditionally underserved students.