Bridging the Gaps: Equity Considerations for School Reentry

By Dan Hinderliter
July 14, 2020

Educators are often regarded for their ability to adapt quickly, think on their feet, and remain flexible in the face of constant change. In the first six months of 2020, more than ever, teachers, principals, and school administrators had to respond to more challenges than in recent memory; with the advent of the COVID-19 coronavirus, states were forced to adopt policy quickly, giving those on the local level limited time to act. While the education community responded as appropriately as they felt was possible, providing students with additional technology to work from home, driving school busses filled with Internet-enabled devices to students’ homes, and creating a brand new virtual curriculum (just to name a few), the quick response left many students disengaged and disconnected from their classrooms and classmates. Gaps for already marginalized students continued to widen as equity was sacrificed for expediency. As schools begin to plan for reopening, significant challenges still exist. With these challenges, though, come significant opportunities to explore innovative solutions. We can turn to best practices and resources compiled throughout this summer to understand the critical equity considerations necessary, as well as present some of the viable solutions to overcoming these challenges. While the following is by no means exhaustive, this can hopefully serve as a jumping off point for research and additional investigation of one’s own.

As states begin to plan for school reentry, they must have equity at the forefront of their reopening guidance to ensure that historically marginalized students are supported. Johns Hopkins University developed a tracker for school reopening plans; as of writing, 49 states and the District of Columbia have developed reentry plans. Only 37 states, however, include information about “children of poverty and systemic disadvantage” and many of these mentions are limited. They’ve subsequently developed guidance (in much more detail then I can include here) to address these equity concerns as schools begin to reopen. While some plans are more inclusive of equity considerations than others, states should turn to exemplars that elevate these historically marginalized groups within their plans. Vermont’s Agency of Education, for example, has an equity lens tool that commits to ensuring educational equity at all levels. Accordingly, their state reentry plan has one of the more comprehensive plans regarding equity considerations in the country. Maryland similarly requires that the local school system must have an equity plan in place that is reflected through the local recovery plan. By elevating equity to the forefront of the reentry conversation, states like Vermont and Maryland can work towards a school system that benefits all learners.

Second, state and local educational agencies must continue to utilize data to ensure that the needs of learners and their families are met. While data collection and analysis has become a more ubiquitous part of education, now more than ever states and schools need to collect information about long-term learning outcomes stemming from coronavirus. Parents similarly see the value of data collection surrounding the impacts of COVID-19, as a significant majority  are interested in information about how school closures impact short- and long-term outcomes. This data, in turn, should inform decisions about the use of virtual classroom or non-standard learning models. While experts predict a COVID-19 learning slide, these academic gaps disproportionately impact BIPOC students. But reentry provides an opportunity to innovate in this area, providing flexible groupings, differentiated grade ranges, and varied curricula in a virtual setting. Districts should join in data workgroups and collaboratives, or modernize their data interoperability through systems like Project Unicorn. Students have been learning virtually for almost six months; understanding where the gaps are and using innovative solutions to benefit from that data will be vital to succeeding in reentry. 

“Many school buildings are old, with poor lighting and lead paint. It feels like a correctional facility when you walk in. Children should walk into school and feel like they’re being embraced. They should have clean air and a bright atmosphere. These are very tangible investments.”

Derrick Johnson, President, NAACP

Finally, state and local governments must invest in critical infrastructure supports to ensure that all students can learn in an equitable manner. In a recent town hall with the National Education Association, NAACP President Derrick Johnson explained: “Many school buildings are old, with poor lighting and lead paint. It feels like a correctional facility when you walk in. Children should walk into school and feel like they’re being embraced. They should have clean air and a bright atmosphere. These are very tangible investments.” Increasing technology, bolstering teacher salary reserves, and ensuring that schools have appropriate personal protective equipment are vital to the success of schools once they reopen. The NEA further argues that states need to invest in schools to allow students to be safe and successful, but also to allow schools to survive economic downturn as a result of decreased tax revenue. Investing in the supports that schools need will not only reopen schools, but ensure they stay open. 

In examining equity considerations surrounding school reentry, states must realize that the coronavirus impacted Black and Brown students, students with disabilities, students experiencing homelessness, economically disadvantaged students, justice involved youth, English language learners, etc. differently than it did other students throughout their state. Understanding how the pandemic impacted these students differently and subsequently investing in their success is surely a challenge, but is necessary to bettering school systems for all learners.

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*The viewpoints of this blogpost are the sole opinions of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the publisher or his employer.

Dan Hinderliter is a policy associate for Advance CTE, a membership organization that connects state directors and other administrators of career and technical education (CTE) to advocate for strong CTE policy and resources at the federal, state, and local level. He received his Bachelor’s degrees in Education and Communication Studies from West Chester University of Pennsylvania and his Masters’ in Education Policy Studies from The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development. He currently lives in Washington, DC.

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