The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating pre-existing inequalities in our educational system. The 2020 school closures threaten to have the most negative impact on the children who are already the most disadvantaged. The closures have magnified educational disparities between students and between schools, further limiting learning opportunities for Black, Latinx, and low-income students because many of these students do not have what is needed to participate fully in distance learning. Also, many of these children and their families have disproportionately borne the adverse health and economic effects of the pandemic, resulting in higher rates and more severe forms of trauma. Finally, the economic impact of COVID-19 threatens to increase the funding inequities between high-poverty and low-poverty schools, leaving many Black, Latinx, and low-income students with even fewer educational resources than before the pandemic.
Click to read the full brief on mitigating educational inequities during the pandemic.

The reopening of schools comes with unique challenges and worries for Black parents. The episode below of Justice Above All focuses on the physical and mental health implications of a return to school for Black families and offers solutions for parents navigating these unprecedented times. 

Listed below are the major educational equities anticipated based on school closings, set in the larger context of the already existing structural inequalities that plague our education system.  

While the format and effectiveness of distance learning vary, researchers have modeled two potential scenarios for COVID-19 school closures. The first is a COVID-19 slowdown where students maintained the same level of academic achievement as attained at the beginning of the school closures, without making the additional gains expected from in-person schooling. The second is a COVID-19 slide where students experienced a learning loss during the period of distance learning that is similar to the learning loss during summers out of school. A COVID-19 slowdown projects minimal learning loss, but the estimates of a COVID-19 slide project that students are likely to experience a 30% learning loss overall with a 50% or higher learning loss in math. Like the differential pattern in summer, children in more affluent households are likely to experience less learning loss due to the additional resources these families have to support their children’s education. 
The disruption in education, as well as the social and emotional disturbance from the pandemic, suggests that students will require more academic and social-emotional supports in the upcoming school year and beyond. However, many Black, Latinx, and low-income students were already in schools and classrooms that pre-pandemic failed to provide them with a quality education. Thus, reopening schools without paying attention to issues of equity will only exacerbate the challenges these students face.
Focusing on racial disparities in educational achievement often leads people to think that the factors causing these differences are deficits in students rather than the educational system that serves them. An analysis of the opportunity gap draws attention to inequalities in students’ access to high-quality educational environments that generate differences in educational attainment. Below are a few statistics that illustrate the inequity students of color already faced: 
  • At all levels of school poverty, White students have greater access to quality educators than any other race/ethnic group.
  • Within high-poverty schools, Black students’ access to quality educators is eight percentage points lower than White students.
  • Black and Latinx students are in high-poverty schools at twice the rate of the overall student population.
  • In every state, more than 90% of teachers buy unreimbursed classroom supplies, spending a national average of $459 per year.17 Unreimbursed teacher spending is higher in high-poverty schools, where teachers spend $523 per year to provide supplies for students.
  • Black and Latinx students are more likely to experience homelessness compared to students of other racial and ethnic groups.

COVID-19 has the potential to exacerbate pre-existing inequities apparent by race and income. The order to “stay at home” assumes access to shelter or a fixed housing location and a parent or adult at home for supervision. These orders increased the challenges for students who depend on the support of their local schools and community centers. For many children, schools provide a safe place for students to learn during the day, adequate supervision, technology, internet access, and free school meals. The shelter at home orders surfaced additional public health challenges for students who experience housing instability. The number of homeless students will likely increase due to job instability and unemployment related to the virus.


Unequal Access to Distance Learning 

In 2018, 25% of school districts had less than one technological device per student. A new weekly survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that despite our efforts to expand access to technology and broadband service during the spring of 2020, many students continue to lack the resources to participate in distance learning. Twelve percent of the low-income households surveyed reported that their children do not have a device available for distance learning, and almost 10 % of them stated that their student does not have access to the internet. Students who live with unemployed adults in households experiencing food insecurity and those living in more impoverished states are even less likely to have the resources needed for online learning.



Disparities in Trauma 

Given that COVID-19 disproportionately adversely impacts racial minority and low-income communities, students from these communities are more likely to be severely impacted by trauma. Black and Latinx communities are also more likely to experience more intense exposure to the damaging impacts of COVID-19. Increases in the severity of exposure to traumatic events are associated with heightened harmful effects on mental health. A survey of adolescent teens revealed that 74% of Black students and 87% of Latinx teens worried about the impact of COVID-19 on their families compared to 56% of White students.


As we prepare to reopen schools, we can expect that all students will have experienced some degree of trauma that is likely to impact their learning and behavior in school. This trauma will likely be more severe and ongoing for Black, Latinx, and low-income students.


Cost of COVID Slide at the Individual and Community Level 

Projections of individual academic and earnings loss assume that students can quickly recover from the school closures and that the learning loss does not extend into the upcoming academic year and beyond. However, the trauma that students will have experienced suggests that, without proper supports, Black, Latinx, and low-income students will continue to have restricted opportunities to learn in the upcoming years. Unaddressed trauma interferes with academic learning and makes students more vulnerable to punitive school discipline policies that further alienate and remove them from schooling. Students experiencing trauma are more likely to be suspended from school, and the pattern of school suspensions increases their likelihood of dropping out of high school. Again, the student’s race influences the relationship between trauma and high school dropout rates. Black students with a childhood diagnosis of trauma-related disorders were more likely to drop out of high school than their similarly diagnosed White peers.