COVID Disparities in School Must be Addressed
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued a report entitled, Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students. Unfortunately, the news media did not cover this release. Since it contains helpful information about these disparities, which must be addressed during the coming school year, it is useful to summarize the report.
As the report states:
“The educational gaps that existed before the pandemic—in access, opportunities, achievement, and outcomes—are widening. And we can see already that many of these impacts are falling disproportionately on students who went into the pandemic with the greatest educational needs and fewest opportunities—many of them from historically marginalized and underserved groups.”
The report makes 11 key observations, as follows:
OBSERVATION 1 (K-12): Emerging evidence shows that the pandemic has negatively affected academic growth, widening pre-existing disparities. In core subjects like math and reading, there are worrisome signs that in some grades students might be falling even further behind pre-pandemic expectations.
“Only 15% of districts expected their elementary students to be receiving instruction for more than four hours per day during remote learning, while 85% of districts expected instructional time to dip under four hours—more than an hour per day less than the pre-pandemic national average of five instructional hours per day. Even further, according to the same report, in nearly a fifth of districts surveyed (17%), the instruction students did receive in spring 2020 was designed not to teach new skills and understanding, but to review what had already been taught—in a sort of pandemic holding pattern.“
OBSERVATION 2 (K-12) COVID-19 appears to have deepened the impact of disparities in access and opportunity facing many students of color in public schools, including technological and other barriers that make it harder to stay engaged in virtual classrooms.
“Nearly three in ten parents surveyed in a Gallup poll said their child was “experiencing harm to [their] emotional or mental health,” with 45% citing the separation from teachers and classmates as a “major challenge.” Suicidal ideation was also on the rise.”
OBSERVATION 3 (K-12): Even before the pandemic, many students learning English struggled to participate on equal terms in the classroom as they confronted the dual challenge of mastering grade-level content while continuing to learn English. For many English learners, the abrupt shift to learning from home amid the challenges of the pandemic has made that struggle even harder.
“Students learned only 67 percent of the math and 87 percent of the reading that grade-level peers would typically have learned.” According to McKinsey’s analysis, that would translate into a three-month loss in learning in math, and one-and-a- half months in reading.
Late elementary and early middle school students were still about 8–11 weeks behind midyear expectations in math by last winter, with middle schoolers about 6–10 weeks behind expectations in reading. Meanwhile, academic progress for students of color appears to “have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.“
OBSERVATION 4 (K-12): For many elementary and secondary school students with disabilities, COVID-19 has significantly disrupted the education and related aids and services needed to support their academic progress and prevent regression. And there are signs that those disruptions may be exacerbating longstanding disability-based disparities in academic achievement.
“Black children accounted for 20% of those who had lost a parent to COVID-19 through early 2021, despite making up only 14% of all children in the United States. These losses only deepen their risk for traumatic grief, depression, [and] poor educational outcomes.
As recently as March 2021, 58% of white students attending schools that serve fourth graders—often but not always elementary schools—were enrolled in full-time in-person instruction, while only 36% of Black students, 35% of Latinx students, and 18% of Asian students in schools serving fourth graders were enrolled in full-time in-person instruction.
30% of Latinx respondents cited a lack of reliable internet access as an obstacle to distance learning, compared to 23% of their surveyed classmates.
While only 4.7% of white households reported inconsistent internet access, more than twice as many Black households and one-and-a-half times that many Latinx households said the same.
In Chicago, Black students last spring registered among the lowest rates of virtual participation, with nearly 30% not logging in at all at one point during distance learning— compared to 14% of white students not logging in during the same period. In Seattle, Black boys in high school (grades 9-12) had among the lowest virtual participation rates for their grades, with nearly a quarter not logging in at all between March and June, compared to the 12% of all high schoolers who also did not log in. Nearly 30% of principals from schools serving large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families—in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
Nearly 30% of principals from schools serving “large populations of students of color and students from lower-income households” said they had difficulty reaching some of their students and/or families—in contrast to the 14% of principals who said the same in wealthier, predominantly white schools.
Researchers at Ohio State University, for example, reported that average achievement on Ohio’s third-grade English Language Arts assessments had declined by approximately 0.23 standard deviations between fall 2019 and fall 2020—roughly a third of a year’s worth of learning.95 Black students, on the other hand, experienced test score declines that were nearly 50 percent larger than white students’—for a total decline of approximately one-half of a year’s worth of learning.
Only 39% of the Spanish-speaking families surveyed felt prepared to support a child learning from home—compared to fully half of all English-speaking families surveyed.
One California district reported that the rate of low and failing grades among English learners had jumped by 34%—to nearly half of all grades English learners earned. And other districts in fall 2020 saw similarly sharp increases in failing grades among English learners.
Children with IEPs in the same survey were also more than twice as likely than parents of children without IEPs to say that their child was doing little to no remote learning (35% to 17%) and that distance learning was not going well (40% to 19%). By summer 2020, evidence emerged from not only this poll but also another larger-scale online survey of more than 80,000 secondary and upper elementary students that students with disabilities may have been facing more mental health challenges than their peers and more generally having less positive experiences with schoolwork than other students.
Data from one Maryland district, for example, revealed that the number of sixth graders with disabilities earning failing marks in English had doubled from the previous year. Meanwhile, a Virginia district saw a 111% increase in the number of students with disabilities receiving Fs in two or more subjects in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year. And a California district similarly reported an across-the- board jump in fall 2020 in the number of Ds and Fs given to students with disabilities in its middle and high schools.
OBSERVATION 5 (K-12): During the pandemic, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) students in elementary and secondary schools have faced particularly heightened risks for anxiety and stress and have lost regular access to affirming student organizations and supportive peers, teachers, and school staff. These students also are at an increased risk of isolation and abuse from unsupportive or actively hostile family members.
OBSERVATION 6 (K-12 and postsecondary): Nearly all students have experienced some challenges to their mental health and well-being during the pandemic and many have lost access to school-based services and supports, with early research showing disparities based on race, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and other factors.
OBSERVATION 7 (K-12 and postsecondary): Heightened risks of sexual harassment, abuse, and violence during the pandemic, including from household members as well as intimate- partners, and online harassment from peers and others, affect many students and may be having a continued disparate impact on K-12 and postsecondary girls and women and students who are transgender, non-binary, or gender non-conforming.
OBSERVATION 8 (K-12 and postsecondary): Identity-based harassment and violence have long had harmful effects on targeted students and their communities. Since the pandemic’s start, Asian American and Pacific Islander students in particular have faced increased risk of harassment, discrimination, and other harms that may be affecting their access to educational opportunities.
OBSERVATION 9 (postsecondary): COVID-19 has raised new barriers for many postsecondary students, with heightened impacts emerging for students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are caregivers, both for entry into higher education and for continuing and completing their studies.
OBSERVATION 10 (postsecondary): Many institutions of higher education that disproportionately serve students of color and students from low-income backgrounds have seen declines in enrollment since the pandemic began. During the 2020-21 academic year historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) also had declines in enrollment that in some cases far outpaced enrollment declines in their predominantly white peer institutions. Higher-education institutions also reported a sharp drop-off in enrollment in 2020 of students graduating from high-poverty high schools compared to pre-pandemic numbers.
“Public colleges reported sharp declines in enrollment among Native American men (18.4%), Black men (14.3%), Latinx men (12.6%), white men (11.7%); Native American women (11.2%), white women (7.0%), Black women (6.9%) and Latinx women (5.1%).
16% of undergraduates had internet connectivity issues which “often” or “very often” impeded their ability to participate in coursework, the rates were higher among Black and Hispanic students (17% and 23%, respectively) than among white students (12%).”
- Staying on track. More than 77% of all students were concerned about being on track to graduate from their program. These concerns were particularly high among Black (84%) and Latinx (81%) students.223
- Ability to continue. 56% of Black and Latinx students reported that it was likely or very likely that COVID-19 would negatively impact their ability to stay in college, as compared to 44% of white students who said the same.
- Post-graduation concerns. While 80% of all students also worried about what would happen after they graduate, 85% of students of color say they are “very concerned” about not being able to get the skills or work they need to find employment after they graduate.
- Educational disruption. Nearly twice as many Latinx students (50%) and 42% of Black students reported having their education disrupted as compared to white students (26%).
- Fewer classes. Only 3% of white students and only 5% of upper-middle-income students (from households earning between $75,000 and $149,000 annually) said they planned to take fewer classes because of COVID-19. In contrast, 29% of Asian students, 24% of Hispanic students, and 18% of students from households earning less than $25,000 annually said they planned to take fewer classes because of financial or other constraints. And these decisions may well lengthen the time it takes for these students to finish their degrees.
OBSERVATION 11 (postsecondary): Students with disabilities in higher education are facing significant hardships and other barriers due to COVID-19, threatening their access to education, including through remote learning, and basic necessities.
- Feeling isolated. The students with disabilities surveyed were less likely (57%) to feel that they belong on campus than were students without disabilities (73%).
- Feeling unsupported. The students with disabilities surveyed were less likely (76%) to feel that the campus supported them during the pandemic than were students without disabilities (87%).
- Financial hardships and food insecurity. The students with disabilities surveyed were more likely than their peers to experience financial hardships and were three times more likely than their peers to experience food insecurity during the COVID‐19 pandemic.
- Increased depression. A greater percentage of students with disabilities surveyed (from 53% to 70%, depending on the student’s disability) screened positive for a major depressive disorder that appears to be linked to the pandemic, compared to 34% of students surveyed without disabilities.
- Lost jobs. Students with disabilities were far more likely to experience lost income from off-campus jobs (47%) compared to students without disabilities (26%).
- Unexpected Increases in Spending for Technology. 63% of students with disabilities surveyed said they had incurred unexpected expenses for technology as a result of the pandemic, compared to only 17% of students surveyed without disabilities.
- Feeling unsafe. Students with disabilities surveyed were significantly more likely to report living in places during the pandemic that were not free from physical or emotional abuse or violence (from 25% to 41%, depending on the student’s disability), compared to students without disabilities surveyed (14%).
The report concludes with suggestions about how educational institutions can address these growing disparities, as follows:
➢ Resource comparability. Ensuring resource comparability across schools in the same district, consistent with Federal civil rights laws.
➢ School discipline. Recognizing that 1) pandemic-related challenges to students’ mental health and well- being may have long-term effects on behavior in school, 2) pre-pandemic Civil Rights Data Collection reports demonstrate that many schools are disproportionately likely to impose harsher and more frequent discipline on students of color and students with disabilities, and 3) Federal civil rights law prohibits discriminatory administration of school discipline, including the discriminatory impact based on race, color, national origin and disability of school policies and practices that exclude students from classroom instruction, such as suspension, expulsion, and referrals to law enforcement.The use of trauma-informed practices, including within a framework of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), may be particularly helpful for students who have experienced significant hardship, grief, and loss during the pandemic, as well as for those who may struggle to adjust to the new realities of learning at a social distance, whether online or in the brick-and-mortar classroom.
➢ Displaced and relocated students. Ensuring that students do not face discrimination when seeking to enroll in a new school after their previous housing situation changed as a result of the pandemic.
➢ Language barriers. Providing students learning English appropriate language supports and services while ensuring that parents and caregivers have meaningful access to information about school programs, services, and activities.
➢ Addressing harassment. Protecting students who are at heightened risks of identity-based harassment, abuse, and violence during the pandemic.
➢ Ensuring inclusion. Meeting the individual educational needs of elementary and secondary students with disabilities through appropriately designed instruction and related aids and services.
➢ Academic adjustments and modifications. Ensuring postsecondary students with disabilities receive equal opportunity to access educational programs whether they are learning remotely or on campus.
What the report does not say is that all levels of government, federal, state and local, must provide sufficient financial resources to school districts postsecondary institutions so that they can meet the challenges which COVID-19 exacerbated on their students. Failure to do so will result in an ever widening gap with long term negative consequences for millions of students and therefore, our nation.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact me, Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting my web site: Systems Change Consulting.