Not only have K-12 students felt the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but college students also have been forced to perform under the toughest of conditions.
For the African American students and others in underserved communities, the already vast digital divide has been further exacerbated by distant learning, and individuals of color at all grade levels have struggled.
Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA) has embarked on a public awareness program to close the public school and the higher education achievement gap.
NNPA President/CEO, Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. conducted videotaped interviews with education experts, community activists, and college students to help determine whether students in underserved communities are having their needs met during the pandemic.
Dr. Chavis discussed the various challenges faced by students of color and the working class, as the pandemic continues to grip America and place a stranglehold on education.
“One thing I’ve noticed is kind of a communal struggle where some of the pick-ups are not easily solved as it would be if we were on campus,” said Carrington York, a Howard University sophomore.
“There are also tech issues with the computer. If something is broken, students can no longer go to the computer lab that’s available on campus, and they can’t go to a public library to use computers there.
“What we’re seeing is that we lack in availability and accessibility in technology. It’s been a bit of a struggle.”
Dr. Peggy Brookins, the CEO of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, who was appointed to President Barack Obama’s President’s Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans, noted the deepening disparity in educating children of color.
“When we think of what has happened with COVID, we [also] see what has happened to teachers around the country,” Dr. Brookins said.
“We jumped in and pivoted our work quickly to help every teacher in the country, and their need to understand the technology and to bring synchronous learning to students in a way they were not previously afforded.”
On the bright side, Dr. Brookins noted that COVID had provided parents with a window into teaching complexity.
“It’s given parents a window into the classroom, and it gave us a newfound appreciation of what teachers do. I think we have to pay teachers what they’re worth,” Dr. Brookins said.
Hilary O. Shelton, the Washington Bureau director and senior vice president of Advocacy and Policy for the NAACP, proclaimed that the pandemic has significantly impacted Americans as a whole.
Still, he said, African Americans comprise just 13% of the population but have been affected at a much higher rate than anyone else.
Shelton noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined hospitalization records from 14 states and found that Hispanic and Black children are hospitalized the most with COVID.
He said the property tax system that helps fund schools needs revamping.
“We have to fix this system. It’s broken, and some communities still have a system that, if you live in a poor neighborhood, they take money only from your community,” Shelton said. He noted further the need for more African American teachers. “No one can communicate better with our students than someone who looks like them.”
Dr. Patricia Edwards, a distinguished professor of ‘language and literacy’ at Michigan State University and a member of the Reading Hall of Fame posited that the achievement gap is widening, and schools and parents need to communicate better.
“I do think a lot of schools didn’t have good connections with families before COVID,” Dr. Edwards said. “Now, more than ever, they’re realizing the importance of family engagement, and they need to make those connections.
“People need to realize that not all parents are the same. We don’t have the picket fence, the two children and the dog and cat, and the stay-at-home mom. Some schools think that way.
“Teachers have to reformat and think of other innovative and creative ways to teach online. One-on-one instructions have been complicated by COVID, and it becomes a problem when there’s not an adult there to guide the student.”
Otha Thornton, a past-president of the National Parents Teachers Association and a national education advocate, told Dr. Chavis that he’s advising organizations nationwide on mental issues in the African American community.
He said there’s been an increase in mental health problems since the pandemic began.
“It’s being aggravated because of the challenges due to mental health,” Thornton said. “Kids with special needs are getting their needs met, and we have a large number of kids falling behind their grade level. The education gap is widening because these kids don’t have support within the public school. Education begins at home, whether informal or formal. If the child comes from a home that doesn’t have resources, even magazines to read, it sets back reading skills and abilities.
“Parents are working or stressed because they don’t have jobs. One of the things I’m pushing as an advisor is to focus on mental issues because it’s my assessment that when [in-person learning] returns, students will be behind.”