Ashley Daftary Ph.D.

Culturally Responsive

How COVID-19 Could Change the Way We Learn

The pandemic highlights the need for systemic changes in K-12 education.

Posted Jun 17, 2020

The saying, “We are all in this together,” has been a common sentiment shared on social media during the Covid-19 crisis. While this ideal is beautiful, it simply isn’t accurate. Our nation is steeped in inequalities that run along racial and socioeconomic lines and pervade all of our social systems. One area where this is clearly evident today is in K-12 education.

Experts in mental health and social work have been cautioning us about the effects of trauma that the coronavirus pandemic will have on students, families, and teachers. Indeed, all of these groups have been struggling with disruptive transitions over the past several months. However, there are gaping inequalities in the way that students from historically marginalized communities have experienced these transitions. These inequities will continue to widen once schools re-open.

Take the fact that People of Color are disproportionately represented in frontline and essential worker jobs. In New York City, for example, People of Color make up 75% of frontline workers, and within Amazon’s massive workforce, 45% are Black or Latinx. This means that many Students of Color may have parents who are essential workers and unavailable to regularly assist with the logistics of their schooling. Additionally, students from lower SES backgrounds—both in urban and rural areas—may not have access to high-speed internet, which is necessary for online classes. Beyond the issues of internet connectivity to the digital world, many students from lower SES backgrounds face additional barriers within their physical world. For example, compared to their middle- and higher-SES counterparts, they are more likely to be living in smaller, denser living spaces, making it more difficult to study or to go outside for physical activity. Students who rely on free or reduced lunch programs have also faced increased barriers to getting sufficient nutrition during the pandemic. This is problematic because both nutrition and physical activity are important for mental cognition and academic performance. Adding to these challenges is the fact that government efforts intended to provide economic relief, such as the CARES Act, have not reached people equally.

Of course, all of these issues further pile onto the recurrent racism, police violence and murder, white terrorism, and other systemic abuses that People of Color experience daily. Consequently, students from historically marginalized communities, particularly Students of Color, can experience complex trauma—multiple, overlapping traumatic events—due to the additional stresses (i.e., racism) on their lives in addition to the ones everyone else is also facing. When students go back to school there will be gross disparities in relation to their studies, adding more mental and emotional strain for those most impacted by the pandemic. The cumulative result of such complex trauma can take a severe toll on students’ higher brain functions and academic performance. This can further compound the already self-reinforcing cycle that is systemic racism and inequality in education.

As commentators and social critics have pointed out, the pandemic did not create these disparities and inequalities. Rather, it has merely shone a light on them (as well as exacerbating them). As school districts consider reopening in the fall, administrators must figure out how to better serve students who have fallen further behind as a result of COVID-19, how to address their academic needs and their mental health and well-being needs alike. In addition, districts must also be prepared to address the additional trauma Students of Color, particularly Black and African American students, have experienced subsequent to the continued, highly-publicized murders of Black men and women and the racist backlash to the protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. This is also an opportunity for school districts to reflect on and change their own structures, policies, and practices, especially discipline practices. For example, the presence of police or security (who are often perceived to be police) only add to and reinforce the trauma already experienced by Black and Brown communities.

Certainly there are things that schools and teachers can do to help students most impacted by the pandemic, both now and when they return to classrooms. In addition, various forums are sharing resources for educators to support students trying to make sense of the overt racism in our society. The problem is that teachers, particularly those who work in communities that have been historically marginalized, are already overwhelmed and underfunded. We can talk endlessly about what schools should be doing, such as hiring more mental health counselors, school psychologists, and school social workers trained in anti-oppressive practice and trauma-informed care. We can also talk about what teachers should be doing, such as being alert to students who may be at risk due to structural barriers or students who are in crisis. The fact is, though, that without providing schools and teachers with adequate resources, asking them to do these things on top of what they already do would be unreasonable, and would also still not be enough.

Despite more verbal appreciation for teachers and schools during the COVID-19 crisis, the reality is that we are not only failing to provide them with what they need, we are undermining their efforts through state-level budget cuts at a time when they are facing increased costs. The onus cannot be on states that are facing the impossible task of allocating funds they do not have. States and school districts cannot pass unbalanced budgets, so the urgently-needed funds need to come from the federal government. However, the CARES Act provided schools with only a fifth of the federal aid they received during the 2008 recession. Consider that the U.S. saw the loss of about 120,000 K-12 teaching jobs during the Great Recession, even with higher levels of federal aid and a situation that was not as grim as the one we are now facing.

This is why we cannot discuss how to meet the needs of K-12 students—in general and particularly students from historically marginalized communities—without tackling the thorny issues of budget cuts and federal funding. To discuss the former without stressing the importance of the latter would be like asking a car to keep moving without giving it gas. In a letter to Congress, more than 70 educational organizations clearly stated what they needed: more funding. I would take it further and say that we need more than just additional funding, because the reality is that the U.S. has been set up to disadvantage People of Color and the poor. What our nation requires, in addition to funding, is systemic change. This change includes educational justice that not only atones for past harms, but also current harms that disadvantage those targeted by racism, nativism, and classism.