To say that this school year has been a challenge is an understatement. To be completely real, it has been nuts. Districts and teachers have had to grapple with how to set up effective remote learning strategies. Students have had to mourn the loss of essential academic and social activities. And parents have had to figure out overnight how to be teachers. Absolutely nuts!
But as challenging as each of these issues are, there is a greater challenge lurking in the shadows. COVID-19 is forcing us to look deeply at some of the huge educational equity challenges our country faces. And the picture isn’t pretty.
Educational inequality isn’t a new concept in our country. In fact, it’s one of the many inequities that our country was built on. Our persistent achievement and discipline gaps and difficulties with special education disproportionality are indisputable proof of that. But COVID-19 has highlighted four new equity challenges that educators must address now. Specifically, educators must be mindful of challenges related to school funding, the teaching workforce, special education service delivery, and the technology gap.
Like many other organizations, schools are preparing for sizeable budget cuts due to the country’s economic downturn. The hit will be the hardest in states that heavily rely on funding from sales and income taxes. As unemployment rates rise, spending will decrease, and states that rely on these sources for educational revenue will have access to fewer dollars. And, according to Daarel Burnette II, “property-poor districts typically serve large numbers of low-income, Latino, and black students, many of them with special needs”. As a result of underfunding, we will likely see an increase in class sizes and a reduction in student support services, which are typically already slim in low-income districts.
Another consequence of funding troubles is a potential shift in the teaching force. The financial uncertainty we face may lead to lay-offs and early retirements. Andre Perry, predicts that experienced teachers near retirement age will leave schools in droves following COVID-19 as they did after Hurricane Katrina. Financial insecurity and health concerns will drive this exodus. As a result, it is likely that a “younger, whiter teaching corps” will replace some of our most experienced teachers. As history shows, inequity is exacerbated when our most inexperienced teachers are placed with our most vulnerable student populations.
The challenges of supporting special education students through remote learning is another equity issue gaining national attention. Educators are quickly realizing the difficulties of providing remote instruction and teletherapy services to special needs students. Some services and assessments are nearly impossible to render remotely. For example, most districts have halted the psychoeducational assessments required as a part of initial and triennial special education evaluations. While special education teachers are trying their best to provide students with the resources, services, accommodations, and modifications written into their individualized education plans (IEPs), in many cases, their ability to implement an IEP as it was written is not possible. This leaves parents, with varying levels of experience and time, to fill in the gaps.
Without the specialized services that are guaranteed to special education students as a part of their right to a “free and appropriate public education”, many special education students, who frequently already fall behind their general education peers academically, will fall even further. In some cases, students will even lose skills that they have worked hard to develop and that will be difficult to recoup.
The government is further adding to parent’s concerns. Congress recently gave Betsy DeVos, U.S. Secretary of Education, 30 days to consider and propose any waivers to IDEA deemed “appropriate” during the pandemic. Parents and advocates worry that any such waivers will put student’s civil rights in jeopardy.
Special education service delivery is also a concern in the nation’s juvenile detention centers. In juvenile detention centers the numbers of special education students are high, in-person instruction has been limited out of concerns of spreading COVID-19, and digital resources for instruction are slim out of security concerns.
The persistent technological divide is the last major threat to educational equity that we are currently experiencing. Students without the technology to access remote instruction are at a significant disadvantage.
Many districts, with the support of community-based organizations, have responded to this concern. For example, many have begun supplying computers, tablets and hot spots, and stationing “wifi-buses” in the most impacted neighborhoods.
However, availability does not amount to accessibility. Many families who have not had regular access to the technological platforms used for remote learning do not know how to navigate these resources. And, in many low-income communities of color, where parents work in jobs considered “essential”, students have less access to help and support with technology or school work in general.
As with many challenges in life, the first step to overcoming is simply to acknowledge that there is a problem. As it relates to educational equity, we have several. And we can not afford to ignore them as we continue to tweak our distance learning models and plan for the re-opening of schools sometime in the future.
Technological inequity seems the easiest problem to address, so perhaps we can start there. Districts that are struggling to provide the technological resources students need during these times can look to the models set in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta for guidance.
Challenges related to the workforce, funding, and special education service delivery are more tricky. They will require collaborative problem-solving at the school, district, state, and federal levels. And that collaboration must start now. Our students have already lost so much… we can not wait until school re-open to try to address these issues.