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The Crisis July 7, 2020

How Coronavirus Could Widen Learning Gap for African-American Students

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By Nedra Rhone

On the day in mid-March when Atlanta Public Schools closed in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Kimberly Dukes, a mother of 10 whose children attend three of the lowest-performing schools in the district, was confronted with a logistical nightmare.

Her three high schoolers each had school-issued laptops, but the six younger children in middle and elementary school had one device to share. Even her 3-year-old in daycare would have assignments, she learned.

So, Dukes, a parent activist who in 2019 founded the parent-centric nonprofit Atlanta Thrive, scraped up the money to buy three additional tablets. But like many other parents of African American children nationwide, she was worried. The laptops and tablets enabled her children to log on for lessons during the pandemic, but she knew that alone would not stop the already wide achievement gap faced by Black and low-income students from growing even wider.

While her situation may be unique, Dukes and her family illustrate the experiences of parents across the country as they look to educators to address learning lost during the pandemic.

"Right now, it is not just a certain school in a crisis," Dukes said. "It is the whole country, the whole world."

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the weaknesses in every U.S. system, from health to food to education. Across the board, African Americans and poor citizens have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. In many metro areas, where large numbers of Black students attend the poorest schools, African American students were already at risk.

"Structural racism is actually the pre-existing condition that destined us to be where we are," said Becky Pringle, vice president of the National Education Association, during an April Town Hall hosted by the NAACP. "We shouldn't be shocked. We know these conditions have existed forever."

During the pandemic as schools moved to distance learning, limited access to computers and spotty internet service left many Black students logged out. Some faced challenging home situations, too — food scarcity, abuse, displacement — that made it difficult to tune in to daily lessons. Not having those basic needs met combined with uncertainty has left many Black students even more emotionally fragile.

As some cities began reopening in early May, students were being dismissed from school for summer vacation with no idea what would greet them in the fall. It was only clear that when they did resume instruction, they would need more educational and emotional support than ever before.

Educators have said the pandemic presents both a challenge and an opportunity. In order to meet the unprecedented needs of students, they will have to disrupt an educational system that has failed Black students for far too long.

Pringle said the NEA is working with educators to address students' most urgent needs during the summer. That includes continuing to find ways to close the digital divide so students can gain access to online resources over the summer. It also means making sure students can get meals each day.

The organization is also looking at longer-range plans. COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of face-to-face instruction, Pringle said, but one possibility for the fall is students moving to staggered schedules that would require a half-day in school and a half-day online. Teachers would once again have to rely on distance learning. "We are working with our educators to come together and collaborate and learn how to teach in a remote environment," Pringle said.

One of the biggest concerns when schools nationwide began closing in March was student access to online education. There was a push to bridge the digital divide as school districts allocated laptops to students in need or local businesses and major corporations stepped up with laptop donations.

Comcast opened its WI-FI network for public access and offered free service to new customers who qualified to help ensure students were able to get online. In some cities, teachers drove buses to rural communities to ensure students had mobile hotspots. But even with those assists, the rate of engagement for Black students varied widely.

In Houston's Spring Independent School District, teachers issued paper packets while the school handed out laptops by grade level over a period of several weeks or more. Younger students without access to devices lost out on weeks of learning. At Duval County Middle Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., all students were almost immediately issued laptops. Principal Evan Daniels of Arlington Middle School sent an email to parents informing them about the plan for online learning.

In mid-April, Dukes, of Atlanta, said she had not received much communication from the schools about how they would proceed. During the first week that school was out, her oldest daughter, a senior at Carver High School in Atlanta, slept for three days straight, Dukes said.

"The kids are not adjusting," said Dukes. "We are going to worry about education...but right now we need to be thinking about our social and emotional health. When we come out of this, there will be a lot of people who may not come out the same way."

Marcus Richardson, 17, also a senior at Carver High School, said teachers seemed to limit online lessons to material they had covered rather than teaching new information. Though he had been admitted to Valdosta State University, he worried about what would happen in the coming school year and he wasn't receiving communication from the school.

"We are always the last ones to know, but we are the ones affected by all of this," Richardson said.

Moving forward, consistent communication between schools and parents will be even more critical in creating solutions that work, educators said.

Monique Nunnally, the founder of Atlanta-based Teach X, connects schools to external partners to help address educational needs.

"We are about to go into a space that is going to need a vast amount of human capital," she said. "We are going to have to enlist an army of volunteers and supporters to help parents navigate a new system and help students become self-directed learners."

Nunnally hopes COVID-19 will push the educational system in a direction it should have been going all along. That's one in which each student is viewed as an individual and has a learning plan to meet his or her needs. "It is overwhelming to think about personalized learning," she said. But "If you mandate something, it is going to happen."

John B. King Jr., CEO of Education Trust, a U.S. secretary of education under President Barack Obama, said by some estimates students may have lost as much as half a year in math and a third in reading during the pandemic.

Statewide assessment tests were suspended leaving schools without the usual data they would have to evaluate student performance. Some states, such as Texas, are now subsidizing assessments that can be administered from home if parents want to know how their children are doing.

Once students who are most in need are identified, they will need access to some form of intervention. One solution could be a federal investment in the AmeriCorps program with the idea of creating a set of tutors who could provide additional support in schools, King said. Federal investments should also be leveraged to address the social and emotional impacts of COVID-19.

Other solutions being considered to help close learning gaps caused by the pandemic include distance learning during the summer months, an expanded school day, or possibly an extended school year. All of those solutions would be best supported by investment dollars from the federal government, King said.

"I think federal action is critical. State and local governments don't have the ability to borrow the way the federal government does," King said. School districts are already struggling to close budget shortfalls and if they resort to teacher layoffs it could have a profound impact on student achievement, he said.

In Dukes' community, which is 98 percent African American, the schools have so consistently underperformed that in 2017 former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen placed them under the operation of Purpose Built Schools, a nonprofit that functions as a charter school, to help turn the schools around. It has meant several years of upheaval for families, many of which were still recovering from the Atlanta cheating scandal, a multiyear investigation of irregular test scores at several dozen Atlanta Public Schools that resulted in indictments of 35 educators.

Atlanta Public Schools announced in May the need to fill a $60 million budget gap. Carstarphen said nonpersonnel cuts had been made, including pulling back on teacher raises and reducing per pupil expenditures by 1.8 percent. The district also implemented a hiring freeze on new hires, unless they were directly related to the COVID-19 emergency response. Teacher furloughs were also possible, Carstarphen said.

The district established a cross-functional task force to consider plans for a return to school. "These are all questions that we and school districts all over this country are grappling with," Carstarphen said in a memo to employees.

As the school year ended in mid-May, the district set up a number of online resources for students such as ebooks for summer reading that are aligned with state standards, and a partnership with the public library encouraged students to read for 20 minutes a day and log their efforts online.

Students also had access to MyBackPack, which provided digital resources for practice, review, and enrichment. A number of health resources were also in place for families in need of assistance, including access to free COVID-19 testing, routine healthcare, and a hotline that provided resources to teens.

But Carstarphen will not be around to oversee post-pandemic education in Atlanta schools. The district hired a new superintendent, Lisa Herring, former head of schools in Birmingham, Ala. Herring said she hoped everyone would work together to rally around the education of students.

The district declined to provide an official to be interviewed for this article. A spokesperson said officials were in the early stages of developing a comprehensive plan and did not have anyone available who could address questions related to student learning post-pandemic.

As schools continue to plan and evolve, parents of African American students will have no choice but to become even stronger advocates for their children as they seek services to help fill the inevitable educational gaps.

That is the kind of change Dukes has been working toward for so many years with the parents in her community and it is a lesson she learned long ago. She vowed to continue to keep her children on task, while also rallying parents and calling school administrators to ask the questions that some parents don't know to ask.

"Who is going to lead the parents who don't know? Who is going to lead the parents in the lowest-performing schools?" Dukes said. "Only 4 percent of kids born in poverty are going to make it out. I am worried, but my kids are going to be O.K. because I am going to raise hell."