Learning While Black: The Complexities of Learning Amidst a Pandemic and Educational Inequity

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“I currently work with 15 teachers in 2 middle and 2 high schools in a high poverty school district whose student population is 85% Black. These schools are experiencing 50-60% attendance rates, which means that about 40-60% of students are absent on any given day,” a 19-year veteran educator, who prefers to be listed as D.C, told me.

“Additionally, teachers have expressed that the students who missed the most are also those whose contact numbers are disconnected. Since COVID-19 complicates home visits, I have no idea how many of these students have been checked on since March, and that is terrifying and tragic,” D.C. continued.

D.C. is a Louisiana educator in one of the lowest-performing districts in the nation, and one that is now grappling with the challenges of distant learning on a largely impoverished and historically disenfranchised Black student population. Their story is not an anomaly for educators of Black American students that come from poor neighborhoods. The effects of virtual learning have exacerbated already prevalent disadvantages.

When I asked D.C. about the school system not properly acknowledging the impact of the COVID learning environment combined with the persistent disparity that regularly affects Black students, their assessment was disheartening to say the least.

“Another barrier is the focus on ‘business as usual,’ including standardized testing. I see so many districts, not just mine, approach this year as though it reflects that status quo in an online space,” said D.C.

“By moving forward full steam and continuing to use deficit-based approaches to pedagogy — i.e., focusing on learning "gaps" due to COVID shutdowns — teachers become quickly exhausted and feel there is little room to address the social-emotional needs of our students. And Black students' social-emotional needs in particular, as this time is not only one of pandemic, but also of a movement for racial justice, are crucial to make space for in order for students to learn and thrive,” D.C. continued.

A Catastrophe No One Could Have Predicted

Every year, educators like D.C. have high hopes for the students they teach. For teachers who work in school districts saddled with poverty and municipal disinvestment, hope is often the only currency they carry into their classrooms every day. In America, public schools are funded by property taxes paid by residents of neighborhoods that are separated by socioeconomic levels.

The poorer the neighborhood, the less investment in the schools that surround it.

Still, with the known variables of systemic inequity being taken into consideration, teachers and students of America’s poorest zip codes could not have imagined how much their learning environment would be uprooted in the spring of 2020. By the beginning of March, the coronavirus pandemic had taken an aggressive hold of the United States, infecting citizens by the thousands and bringing commerce to a screeching halt.

It also forced the closure of schools nationwide as the risk of infection for school personnel and students was far too high for a public still learning the details of the novel virus.

A New Type of Truancy Brought on by COVID

“I feel like the barrier to actually REACH the student has been increased,” Cedric P., a five-year veteran middle school English teacher, told me.

“There were always students who didn’t show a lot of interest in school or the lessons that teachers were teaching. Now you add the fact that they don’t have the routine of coming to school and are sometimes left to sit at a computer to be ‘taught’, you can lose a student completely,” he continued.

Cedric is also a south Louisiana educator, but his sentiments are not exclusive to teachers in the rural South. The barriers plaguing Black students from underserved communities amidst the pandemic do not carry regional bias.

In a recent editorial published by the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board, the writers expressed a shared sentiment as to how the pandemic highlighted social inequities in Southern California and the ways it directly affects students of color.

“The disparities spilled into education when students were sent home for distance learning, a shift that lower-income families were ill-equipped to support. The Times found that during the spring, large numbers of low-income students and Black and Latino students did not regularly participate in remote classes,” the editorial board wrote.

The pandemic has brought about another form of truancy for students of lower-income backgrounds. It is not truancy sparked by a general disinterest in education, but an inability to fully engage in the learning process driven by a lack of access (students who come from homes with very poor Wi-Fi) or the new balancing act of their parents having to function as at-home educators while working jobs that place them at high risk of virus contraction.

A Nurturing and Nourishment Deficit

“One of the most difficult issues in teaching children during this pandemic is the fact that all of the students' emotional needs are not met,” said Chelsea Murry, an educator with nine years experience at the elementary and middle school level.

“I’ve taught kids that are raised in emotionally broken homes, and our district has done great work with feeding and assisting with nutritional nourishment, but the kids who thrive on the physical nature of what peace looks like have suffered the most. Some kids lost their “safe haven” when the school year ended in March,” Murry continued.

For many minority students, the “safe haven” Murry referenced is a space where they are nurtured, nourished, and visible in ways their home environments are unable to provide. One example is the statistics that point to these students enduring hunger issues since schools closed back in the spring.

Students from low-income households that qualify for free or reduced-price school meals, only about 15 percent have been getting those meals, according to research from the Brookings Institution. The absence of a balanced meal is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dangers that families of students of color face when in-person schooling is not an option.

According to research done by The Marshall Project, the over-policing of Black and Brown communities makes parents of children of color more susceptible to being over-policed, as child welfare experts recognize that the child welfare system is often hypersensitive to mainstream media.

“Historically, sensationalized rhetoric about child abuse has led to more children being removed from their parents—“and it is a really, really big deal to separate a child from his or her family,” Emma Ketteringham, a managing director of the family defense practice at the Bronx Defenders in New York City told The Marshall Project.

Images of Black Americans being victimized by state-sanctioned violence jolts the consciousness of allies and advocates, but also raises the suspicion of those who sit at their dinner tables questioning why Black folks are always in trouble. And some of those dinner conversations are had by employees of child protection agencies who equate Black children being away from the school setting with Black children being in dangerous home environments.

A Gap Widening

“The lack of Wi-Fi and working computers is definitely a barrier,” said B. Marcel Williams, who has over a decade of experience working in the after-school sector as an instructor and program manager.

“There are SPED (special education) kids who need a classroom setting to learn best. Not being able to participate in extracurricular activities or socializing in general also takes away desire for some people to engage in the educational process,”Williams continued.

For years, education researchers have been studying the achievement gap that exists between students of lower-income backgrounds and those who come from middle to upper-class backgrounds. There is anxiety around the margins of the achievement gap widening amidst COVID-19 and for good reason.

Black and Brown students who come from lesser socioeconomic means often have their educational abilities and intelligences quantified by culturally biased standardized tests. These tests that hold the keys to student retention and graduation rates are not a burden for affluent, private school students. Neither is functional Wi-Fi or access to additional resources.

School districts operating during the pandemic have been seemingly slow to comprehend just how different the backgrounds of their student populations are. Or perhaps they are precisely aware of the disparity but expect public school minority students to work magic with minimal resources.

Resources to Combat Educational Inequity

Fortunately, all is not lost in the efforts to keep Black students from disadvantaged backgrounds up to speed while learning amidst the pandemic. There are lots of free and low cost resources available to students and their parents to aid in mitigating any learning deficit brought on by socially distant education. The following excerpt from an article from the World Economic Forum encapsulates the direction schools and school districts should be moving towards in the immediate future.

“As schools look to navigate the rest of their school year safely and securely, they have the opportunity to recreate the space. We can reimagine how education can be inclusive and what it should look like,” the article states.

So much of the future ideation that has sparked from the events of 2020, the pandemic, and all of the social inequities this period has shined a light on, is based around the concept of reimagining systems that have failed us and constructing new systems that benefit the whole of us. Education reform has been a topic of American discourse for an awful long time, but right now, as with all other systems of oppression, the way we educate our children can be totally overhauled for something of greater value.

There is increased learning to be done. For all of us.