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Report: Pandemic Exposes Educational Equity Challenges

Public Health Researchers’ Study of Montgomery County Schools Finds Underserved Black, Latino Children Fell Between Cracks

By Chris Carroll

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Illustration by iStock

To prevent online learning from further widening historical disparities faced by underserved Black and Latino students, school districts must work to ensure adequate adult support, improve school-home communication and provide educational resources, a new UMD report says.

Black and Latino K-12 students who slipped out of regular contact with educators in the coronavirus-driven era of online learning are in danger of falling behind academically, further widening long-standing educational gaps, according to a new report from University of Maryland researchers.

The research, based on interviews and focus groups with 52 students, parents and educators in Montgomery County Public Schools in August, was conducted by associate professors Amy Lewin and Kevin Roy in the Department of Family Science. It was released today in a Zoom forum sponsored by the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence, an advocacy group formed by Identity Inc., which works with Hispanic students, and the Montgomery County chapter of the NAACP. 

Although the study was conducted in one school system, many of its findings—including shortages of adult support, school-home communication and academic resources for low-income children—are likely to be broadly applicable, Lewin and Roy said.

“This study came about because of the concern that online learning was leaving many people behind—that they were disengaging from school,” Lewin said. “When the pandemic hit, it became clear that the existing issues of equity were going to get worse, and we needed to do something.”

The study found that for many children on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, the pandemic cut them off from adults like never before, as parents continued to work now-risky in-person jobs and teachers were juggling family responsibilities at home as they attempted to manage their online classes.

As one Latina parent told the researchers: “(Y)ou have parents who have to work, and the middle school child has to take care of two elementary school kids. The child has to help them to log in, and when the youngest ones no longer want to be there, it’s a big problem because the oldest child also has to be in his class at the same time. They’re living through something very sad in terms of the parents not being able to be with the kids.”

In the best of times, complex problems with learning require effective communication between educators, parents and students, but such coordination has been all too rare during the pandemic, including the basic requirement of finding ways to keep students engaged. 

“It was never clear throughout the spring who was supposed to stay in touch with students at the school level and the county level,” Roy said. “They just often fell through the cracks.”

Other students have struggled with a lack of electronic equipment or the internet access needed for online classes. Some live in crowded homes without a desk or a quiet nook to concentrate on schoolwork.

It comes down to schools finding ways on the fly to pay more attention to students and their needs, replicating the attention they would be getting in classrooms under the watchful eyes of teachers and administrators, the researchers said. That could mean redeploying library, maintenance or cafeteria staff to check in with families to help keep children focused on learning, as well as supplying equipment or even access to study spaces outside the home for children who need them, Lewin and Roy said.

The research team was very helpful especially in understanding the social-emotional component for kids,” said Mondi Kumbala-Fraser, director of the Black and Brown Coalition for Educational Equity and Excellence. “(F)or many the school is a safe space where they have adults who push them to be their best and look out for them. It makes a difference to have that contact, but they are missing that now.”  

Although the findings are sobering, Lewin said, they come at a time of opportunity to not only address current needs, but to correct enduring disparities that the global coronavirus crisis has highlighted.

“The whole education system is being forced to restructure because of the pandemic,” she said. “Our effort is to help ensure that the restructuring happens in a way that increases equity and decreases the historical disparities that have affected Black, Latino and low-income students.” 

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