CHARITY BROWN GRIFFIN: How COVID-19 may amplify education inequities

Friday, April 17, 2020 -- While this global pandemic likely brings feelings of uncertainty, my hope is that we can, with certainty, use this moment in history to transform learning spaces to ensure they are appropriate, of quality and freely accessible to all students. ​

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Charity Brown Griffin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Winston-Salem State University and a 2018-2019 fellow at the school’s Center for the Study of Economic Mobility.

In the summer of 2019, my undergraduate students and I used funding from the Center for the Study of Economic Mobility at Winston-Salem State University to develop and implement a research-based program for black teenagers called “YouthRISE.” Our summer program sought to empower youth to become community-change agents and gain insight into their perceptions of opportunities and barriers to mobility given the economic challenges faced by city residents.

The 11 participating youth perceived education to be critical for improving their economic opportunity. They shared stories about unequal treatment they felt would result in economic disadvantage. These youth spoke about lack of technology equipment, the high number of long-term substitutes who did not engage them with the curriculum, large class sizes, and teacher perceptions of incompetency due to their race as key issues in their low-income schools.  These students also shared that many white students of a different social class did not experience these issues.

Last month, as Gov. Roy Cooper extended K-12 public school closures statewide to May 15, students were suddenly forced into learning through technology-enabled platforms. While we should highly commend educators for attempting to maintain quality instruction “as best as they can,” during a global pandemic, what can simultaneously be observed is “business as usual.” And for our education system, that “business” is inequity.

That is, to no surprise, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis has in many ways, amplified the pervasive inequities that exist within education, making this pandemic not only a health and economic crisis, but also an education crisis.

When COVID-19 first demanded remote instruction, I became concerned with how the students from my summer program might manage. I then begin to question, more broadly, what impact this emergency transition to remote learning might have on minoritized students. That is, students who endure mistreatment and are pushed to the margins due to situations outside of their control – like the youth from my YouthRISE program.

For students already facing challenges, it is likely that the transition to remote instruction has included various hurdles. In the best case scenario, all schools have the resources to implement remote learning, students have access to computers, printers and reliable internet access, and parents have the ability, time, energy and patience to serve as facilitators for home school instruction alongside other responsibilities.

However, despite district initiatives like those of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, which distributed laptops and hotspots for home use, the “best-case” scenario is not actualized for many already disadvantaged students because educational technology alone is insufficient. Indeed, what some educators are observing is that combined disadvantage - for instance, lack of internet and broadband infrastructure due to geographic location, limited English proficiency, existing disabilities, caregivers tied down with work obligations and unsafe living environments - is creating space for a worst-case scenario for remote learning. That is, a scenario in which no learning occurs at all and prior knowledge fades.

If we are truly concerned with creating equitable learning environments, we must also recognize that some students have privilege, meaning unearned access to resources and social power due to their social group membership. For some students, these privileges may result in advantages, (due to their socioeconomic status, English proficiency, ability, or race, for instance) that have made the transition to remote learning much easier. This advantage may inevitability lead to more positive outcomes for them as compared to their disadvantaged peers.  In short, this disruption of schooling will likely have disparate effects among students.

There is much uncertainty regarding when the COVID-19 crisis will end and how the world will look after. But I have little interest in going back to “normal” and pushing forward, “business as usual,” as science suggests that the norm persisted with inequities. Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first African-American justice, stated “the process of democracy is one of change” and emphasized that “our laws are not frozen into immutable form” but are “consistently in the process of revision in response to the needs of a changing society.” It is my hope that educators use this moment to collaborate with policymakers to reimagine and reform education. Questions to ask might include:

  • How has the current approach to teaching, standardized curriculum, age-based cohorts, and classroom-contained instruction limited some student’s opportunities to thrive while simultaneously improving opportunities for others?
  • In what ways can we use this moment to initiate new practices and remove structural barriers, such as seat-time requirements and standardized testing, to support equity?
  • How can we inspire leaders to move away from tweaking the current system bit by bit (which ultimately maintains existing inequality) to entirely transforming the system that evidence suggests is broken?
  • In addition to the hundreds of billions of dollars already being approved to support corporate businesses, how can our state legislators lobby for federal funding to support education reform efforts in local school districts?

Whatever role played, be it teacher, administrator, support staff, parent, community advocate, researcher or policymaker, we can advance education equity by interrogating and challenging practices, policies, and institutional structures that increase the risks of students experiencing disadvantage. So, while this global pandemic likely brings feelings of uncertainty, my hope is that we can, with certainty, use this moment in history to transform learning spaces to ensure they are appropriate, of quality and freely accessible to all students. ​​​​

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