Coronavirus Impact on Students and Education Systems

THE ISSUE

From individual families to the country as a whole, the pandemic has revealed how crucial early care and learning, educations systems and traditional afterschool supports are to our national wellbeing. The crisis has also laid bare the economic and racial disparities that persist and preclude equal access to these essential public goods. We know that educational programs implemented in the early years, along with coaching and parental support, provide the foundation children need to be successful in school and in life. We are also keenly aware of the impact of underfunding and the lack of educational resources, especially for communities of color and families with low incomes. These issues are exacerbated in the crisis context particularly as we grapple with the lack of sufficient, qualified teachers; access to age-appropriate curricula; the complexities of dual language enrollment; and the need for responsive interactions between teachers and children, among other critical issues. These challenges underscore an immediate and terrible urgency to the work to level the playing field for vulnerable children and families.

WHY IT IS IMPORTANT

When children and families have access to high-quality child care and early education it helps them thrive in the short and long term. But most families in need of child care have trouble finding, accessing, and affording it, especially families with low incomes. In 33 states, the cost of full-time, center-based child care is higher than the average cost of in-state college tuition. In 2018, the annual child care costs for an infant in center-based care ranged from an average of $5,760 in Mississippi to $24,081 in Washington, D.C. Many families with low incomes qualify for child care assistance through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). But a Center for Law and Social Policy analysis of FY 2016 data found that in no state did more than half of all potentially eligible children receive subsidies under federal or state income parameters.

Child care is a critical support for working parents. Families headed by single women make up a significant percentage of the workforce and account for a disproportionate percentage of minimum wage workers. Already these families struggle to make ends meet, and face obstacles related to rigid leave policies and access to affordable, quality child care. Additionally, child care workers earn very low wages, and the profit margin for child care businesses is thin. Women of color are overrepresented in the child care workforce; they comprise 40% of early educators in regulated child care centers and homes, and half of home-based paid child care providers who operate outside the licensed child care system. But women of color in child care are less likely than their white counterparts to have jobs that offer benefits or opportunities for professional development and advancement.

For students of color at all levels across the country, school closings create problems even more urgent than the interruption of their educations. Schools also serve as a community nexus for food and housing. Many Black students are eligible for the federal Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Program (FRPL). Fall 2016 data from the National Center on Education Statistics show that for high-poverty schools where more than 75% of students are eligible for FRPL, Blacks students accounted for 44% of those attending. At schools where 50 – 75% percent of students are eligible for FRLP, Black students made up 30% of the student population. For students who rely on their schools as a reliable source of daily meals, school closings leave a critical gap. The Secretary of Agriculture is granted waiver authority with respect to the student lunch law (under the Meals Act), including regarding nutritional content. This is a double-edged sword. It is important for the Secretary to be able to move quickly to get meals to students, including outside the school and in individual settings. Yet even here some guardrails must remain in place. We cannot go back to the days when ketchup counted as a vegetable for school lunches.

Additionally, with many schools being closed due to Covid-19, there is an opportunity for our nation, through Congress, to make more progress on the digital divide—the gap between students who have access to the Internet and devices at school and home, and those who do not. A digital use divide also exists between students who are taught to use technology in active, creative ways to support their learning, and those who mainly use technology for passive content consumption. Students and families of color can be found in disproportionate numbers on the losing side of both propositions. Many schools, particularly in low-income communities and communities of color, do not yet have access to or are not yet using technology in ways that can improve learning daily. Many homes in low-income and rural communities do not have the necessary technology or access to high-speed internet service.

WHAT SHOULD POLICY MAKERS DO?

Recognizing the greatest opportunities for responsive change-making exists within communities, to avert catastrophe and reduce the harm of COVID-19, the NAACP recommends the following:

Invest in Early Care and Learning

  • Ensure financial protections for early child care centers, Head Start and Early Head Start and home-based providers who may be critical to new small group norms.
  • Establish a meaningful process for public notice and comment before the waiver authority is granted to the Secretary of Labor, such as that required by the Administrative Procedures Act.
  • Provide resources for quality distance learning, training, and technical assistance.

Address the Racial Gap in Technology and Internet Access

  • Expand broadband access across the country, with particular investments in rural and low-income communities, to ensure a national standard of internet access, quality, and affordability.

Provide Support for Out-of-School Time and for Teachers

  • Reimburse schools for support staff salaries (meals, bus drivers, etc.)
  • Provide resources to extend meals to out-of-school students.
  • Address housing insecurity for college students unexpectantly out of schools, with particular attention to lower-resourced schools including HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.
  • Many school support staff members are among the category of low-wage workers, only 30% of whom have paid sick leave. If their schools close, some may be tasked with new responsibilities, such as delivering meals to drop-off points, not to mention rigorous new cleaning regimes. The proposals currently under discussion for emergency paid sick leave will benefit these workers if their schools are closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. This is a good start but may be insufficient when many school systems across the country are already considering closing for the rest of the school year.
  • At the level of higher education, the crisis of school closures often extends to housing. Already the NAACP has seen reports of colleges refusing to provide refunds for lost housing or meal plans, which raise important questions about contracts and deceptive trade practices.