Educational Equity in the Time of COVID-19

I tend to think of equity as being different from equality—equity as the ways in which we meet people where they are, as opposed to equality, which says we're going to give everyone the same thing. Equity says we're going to give people what they need. And that may mean there are some communities or some students who are in need of more time, more resources, more support than others. It's not about fairness; it's about trying to be mindful of the historical way in which opportunities and advantages have been spread out across respective communities. It's about understanding historical disadvantages and the kinds of privileges afforded to some communities compared with others.

With COVID-19 happening, I think schools are doing a Herculean task of trying to figure this out all on the fly without a lot of advance notice. We're asking students to access information by way of the internet. And embedded in that is a huge assumption that all students and their families have access to high-speed internet. Federal data has shown that there are more homeless students in the United States than ever before. That poses a significant equity and access challenge. There are lots of students whom we know are not in a position to access technology like laptops and computers and smartphones by way of just their socioeconomic circumstances. That's an access and equity issue. We also know that as schools across the country have closed, there are many younger children whose parents who are not available to watch them, so they are in the care of grandparents or great-grandparents who may not be technologically proficient. This too is an access and equity issue. Furthermore, we know that many communities of color have been hit especially hard during this pandemic, which means that many children of color—namely African American, Native American, Latinx, and Pacific Islander students—will experience disproportionate hardship socially, emotionally, economically, and academically. 

I worry that in this period we are in, we may see an exacerbation of the current inequities that exist between the haves and the have-nots. For many students who have the means, parents will hire private tutors or will be able to stay at home and make sure they have the best technological support, or they will create their own online communities because they have the social capital to plug their children into those co-ops that can help support their learning. They have resources they can tap into that many students from lower-income backgrounds just do not have.

We know that there are going to be perhaps millions of students across the country who will have missed out on up to four months of important instructional opportunity. Many will be moved from one grade level to the next without understanding and recognizing the core concepts and core skills that are often prerequisites for the content they will be expected to learn in their new grades. That's going to cause frustration and challenges not only for the students but also for teachers, who will have to try to figure out how to stay true to the grade-level content they have to cover while knowing that their students were not sufficiently prepared for that content in the previous year because it was cut short.  

So, it will require some really strategic thinking and careful planning, some thoughtful kinds of scope and sequence. It will require some patience and some time on behalf of everyone involved—students, parents, educators, and school leaders. We have to understand that this is going to mean something socially and emotionally for everyone. But I think we'll get through it.

I've been really encouraged to see some of the tremendous efforts that many educators across the country have been engaging in, where they've created small learning communities for clusters of their students—10, 15, 20 at a time—just to help them with content. I've also seen and heard of examples where teachers are availing themselves for one-on-one check-ins with some of their students, by way of phone calls, text messages, Zoom, Skype, Twitter, Facebook, etc. We have to remember that for many of our students, their teachers are the most consistent adults that they have in their lives. So there is a sense of comfort, a sense of connection there. 

So we need to give a big shout-out to all those educators across the country who have continued to create those spaces—big, small, and everything in between.

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For more insights from ICLE Senior Fellow Tyrone Howard on educational equity in the COVID-19 pandemic, listen to his full conversation on the Method to the Mathness podcast from Math Solutions.

To help you continue teaching and learning during the current outbreak of coronavirus, visit HMH's At-Home Learning Support page for free resources. 

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