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Coronavirus has upended school plans. It will also worsen racial and economic inequalities, experts warn

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Racial and economic inequities have long existed in America's school systems, and it's about to get worse, experts warn.

With coronavirus cases still high around the country, half of U.S. elementary and high school students will attend school only virtually this fall, according to a study by Burbio, which aggregates school and community information nationwide.

That will have grave implications for minority and disadvantaged students, said Madeline Hafner, executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network Consortium at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

The past five or six months have "really brought to light these racial disparities that have persisted for generations," she said.

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"The nexus of schooling, health care and the nature of this virus are all coming to create this perfect storm."

Black and Brown families are disproportionately affected by the virus and face inequality in health care, and a lot of families live in multi-generational housing, Hafner pointed out.

When it comes to school, many families use it for services and support, including food, health care and libraries.

In addition, educators agree that virtual learning can't completely replace in-person learning.

For disadvantaged students, the stakes are even higher: Thirty percent of all K-12 public school students, about 15 million to 16 million children, live in homes that don't have an internet connection or an adequate device for distant learning at home, a study by Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group found.

I feel anger. I feel frustration. I feel sadness.
Vicky Martinez
Parent

That lack of access, coupled with inadequate help at home and a quiet place to learn, means lower-income, Black and Hispanic children may struggle, a June report from McKinsey & Company found.

The average learning loss for students is seven months if in-school instruction doesn't resume until January 2021, the report said. However, Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year. School closures will also probably increase high-school drop-out rates, according to McKinsey.

"We estimate that this would exacerbate existing achievement gaps by 15% to 20%," the McKinsey report stated.

Not returning to classrooms until January will also hurt earning power, with the average K-12 student possibly losing $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings (in constant 2020 dollars), the report said.

Breaking it down by race, McKinsey estimated White students would earn $1,348 a year less (a 1.6% reduction) over a 40-year working life, Black students would bring in $2,186 a year less (a 3.3% reduction) and Hispanic students would earn $1,809 less (3%).

Podding up

Ruslan Dashinsky/Getty Images

With the pivot to distance learning, many parents are hiring teachers or tutors and creating "learning pods" or "pandemic pods," which are small groups that meet in-person to study.

Critics call the trend disturbing, since it will leave disadvantaged students behind.

"With great uncertainty about the new school year, wealthier, predominantly White parents are using their resources to secure educational options for their individual children," Erica Turner, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in her "Equity in Pandemic Schooling" action guide.

"By abandoning public schools or cornering scarce educational resources (while many less-advantaged children cannot meaningfully access school at all), they are engaging in White flight and opportunity hoarding."

While some learning pods are using their school district's virtual curriculum, others are offering a private school education — which means kids could be leaving their public school districts. That, in turn, will cause their district to lose some funding.

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"It is deeply inequitable," said said Keisha Scarlett, chief of equity, partnerships and engagement for Seattle's public schools.

As pods form, they will also not likely be diverse, she said.

"The reality is we, a lot of time, have in-group favoritism, so these pods will likely look like and reflect the people we spend the most time with," explained Scarlett, who is also part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Committee on Guidance for K-12 Schools on Covid-19, which urged districts to prioritize reopening schools full-time.

"These will end up being segregated environments for these students."

'I feel anger'

Vicky Martinez, who is raising her family in the same Northeast Los Angeles community she grew up in, is upset that people are thinking of themselves over society as a whole.

"I feel anger. I feel frustration. I feel sadness. It just depends on the day," said the mother of four boys ages 7 to 15.

"It is something that I've seen and I've lived and I've experienced, but not at this level."

Vicky Martinez, center, with her husband Joe and four sons: Ivan, Joe, Noah and Mario (left to right.)
Source: Vicky A. Martinez

Martinez, 41, emigrated from Mexico when she was six years old and grew up poor. These days, when she looks at the charts, she said she's considered middle class.

"I don't feel like it," said Martinez, who is an advisor on the parent board for Integrated Schools, which is a grassroots movement of parents enrolling their children in integrating schools.

Her Highland Park school district, which she said has become gentrified, is going all virtual this fall, and that's how her boys will be learning. Since she is disabled and can no longer work in her field as a respiratory care practitioner, she'll be home with her kids.

"They are going to be alive, that's all I care about," she said. "It doesn't really matter if they are going to fall behind if people are dying."

What can be done

While the pod model isn't necessarily bad, it should be available to everyone, Scarlett said.

Partnerships with community- and faith-based organizations can help by providing space and adults for children who may not have internet access or parents at home to teach them, she said.

"That takes the community-based organization having resources to both financially pay for this — to pay for the space — and having the people that you need in place to be able to help support this effort," Scarlett said.

For instance, San Francisco-based Outschool, a marketplace of online classes, is putting $2 million into a fund to help families in financial need. Half will go to direct cash assistance for its online learning platform and half will be grants to fund in-person learning centers for low-income communities.

"We know that a lot of school districts and community organizations are, now more than ever, strapped for cash," said Justin Dent, executive director of Outschool.org.

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"They are also really struggling in terms of their own personal bandwidth and time."

The organization is also trying to raise an additional $8 million for the effort, said Dent, who was raised in New York CIty's Harlem neighborhood by a single, Black mother. She instilled him in the importance of a good education, he said. Dent has also witnessed the vast inequities in the country's education system.

He said he believes we are at a fork in the road.

"We can say we as a society believe that we need to invest more in these communities or we can just say, 'No, we are going to continue to believe that it is almost every family for themselves and this is only a privilege for wealthy communities,'" Dent said.

For her part, Martinez is optimistic.

"Maybe now there is hope because people are seeing it," she said. "It's in your face, so what are you going to do about it?

"I have this hope that this will be a turning point," Martinez added. "It has to change."

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