Editor's note: This is part of a four-part series on the challenges schools are facing during the pandemic trying to advance marginalized students and the creative ways they are trying to teach them online and in-person.
When schools closed in March, Alexandria Zoungrana was uneasy. For the senior at Manual High School in Denver Public Schools, having school entirely online was foreign to her — and to her teachers.
“Being isolated at home and away from your teachers and peers took away that collaborative and comforting work space that you would get being able to interact with your teachers,” said Zoungrana, who is African American.
Zoungrana is not alone in her experience. In a YouthTruth survey taken between May and June by more than 20,000 students in nine states in grades 5-12, students cited distractions at home and feeling stressed, anxious or depressed as their top obstacles during distance learning.
But for low-income students of color, school shutdowns and remote learning have been particularly difficult. Even prior to the pandemic, students of color, particularly Black learners, faced disproportionate exclusionary discipline rates that studies show are linked to increasing Black-White achievement gaps, as well as a homework gap.
The population of Manual High School is 96% students of color, and 90% receive free or reduced-priced meals.
"We know that despite our best efforts, students are going to fall behind during the coming weeks and months, and probably have in the past weeks and months," said Susan Enfield, superintendent of Highline Public Schools. Students in her Washington state district are at least 73% non-White, and 69% receive free or reduced-priced meals.
Although disciplinary practices were suspended during distance learning, Black and Latinx students continued to face more obstacles than their White and Asian peers during remote classes last spring, according to a survey conducted by America’s Promise Alliance.
In addition to the disrupted spring semester, many Black students and their families, especially, are dealing with another trauma. Following the police-involved deaths of two Black Americans, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, Enfield said her students of color are grappling with “the dual challenge of responding to COVID and the racial reckoning” that has swept the nation.
All these reasons are why Manual High School Assistant Principal Whitney Weathers said she and her team are determined to make sure their students connect with one teacher at least once a week this fall — especially because she discovered her Black students were four times less likely to be contacted by their teachers during spring closures.
'I don't need to see your face'
For some districts serving many low-income students of color, just reaching those students and their families was a feat in itself in the spring. Teachers serving those children were significantly less likely to say all or most of their students had internet access at home, according to research by RAND Corp.
So districts focused efforts and funds on providing laptops and internet access. Highline and other districts have depended on local fundraisers, donations and discounted internet deals to sustain increased technology spending.
Georgia’s Clayton County Schools saw a rise in attendance after a summer of investing Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, as well as state and local funds in new tech and professional development — from 50% of students logging on in the spring to 97% this fall, according to Superintendent Morcease J. Beasley. Clayton schools are at least 95% non-White and 47% "economically disadvantaged."
But even with more tech and internet solutions deployed, some teachers are struggling to keep student attendance and engagement up — like students disappearing due to loss of connectivity or other reasons. And when students logged on, usual signs of engagement were often replaced with blacked out Google Meet screens or idle usernames.
“What does it mean if a student has their camera off, or if they are muted all the time? Are they behind that screen?” said Cheri-Ann Taylor, Clayton’s director of student behavioral health and well-being.
Evelyn Firman, a Spanish teacher and leader of the Manual High School’s advisory curriculum, said requiring low-income students of color students to turn on their cameras, essentially giving educators a peek into their lives, comes from a place of socioeconomic privilege.
Nationally, 45% of Hispanic and Black students attend high-poverty schools, compared to 8% of White students and 15% of Asian students, according to 2017 Education Department data.
“I have had a few situations in which I’ve told them, ‘Hey, I’m going to ask you to turn on your camera right now. I don't need to see your face, just your hands,’” said Firman, who teaches in front of a wall to try to make her learners feel more comfortable. “It gives them time to process, ‘OK, this is my home. Where can I go right now?’”
But, Firman added, there are some students whose camera she doesn't expect to be switched on ever. Instead, she relies on their contributions in a chat box during class, which once reached 120 responses even with two students missing in an eight-student class.
As another workaround, some districts are training teachers to incorporate questions — including social-emotional learning queries, like a simple “How are you?” Students can answer by clicking on a poll or sending an emoji, serving as attendance and sometimes a mental health check-in.
Which students need the most attention?
Districts’ Herculean efforts come as they also face revenue shortfalls that may disproportionately impact districts predominantly serving low-income students of color. Lawmakers and think tanks point out while wealthier districts can fall back on property tax revenue, low-income districts rely mainly on state funding and are facing cuts due to the pandemic when students need support the most.
Where that greatest need lies is an amorphous target. However, projections by the nonprofit NWEA suggest the outcomes could be “bleaker for populations most historically marginalized,” the organization said in a press release. A report by McKinsey&Company released in June shows Black, Hispanic, and low-income students returning in January 2021 will experience higher rates of learning loss — in some cases, almost double the losses — when compared to their White peers.
In Illinois’ Kankakee School District 111 — where a majority of the students are Hispanic, Black or mixed-race and 83.5% are low-income — Superintendent Genevra Walters was dealing with low engagement and work completion, as well as an opportunity gap, prior to the pandemic. While she’s not worried about the gap widening within her district, she said she is concerned about the expanse between her district and others nearby.
“You hear about communities that were able to hire a [full-time] teacher for their bubble of children, so that teacher is only going to maybe two to three houses [to teach],” Walters said. “Our parents don’t have resources like that.”
According to predictions released by the NWEA in October, students nationwide could have returned in fall 2020 with approximately 63% to 68% of the learning gains in reading and 37% to 50% of the learning gains in math when compared to a typical school year.
In April, the organization projected learning loss could be “bleaker for populations most historically marginalized." The most recent study didn't project by race "due to a fundamental concern that we might understate just how significant the impact of COVID-19 will be on schooling and learning for Black communities."
While some district leaders interviewed for this story were hesitant to say which students have lost learning and in which areas, others predict the steepest learning losses will align closely with students of color in poor communities. And some believe while data is important, losses will vary by student and the path to recovery should be personalized.
Prioritizing instruction to maximize recovery
Data has been key to recovery efforts in Kankakee School District 111, where Walters said she focused on gathering spring term numbers from her administrators around assignment completion, quality of work and attendance. She found some of the older students were doing better in a remote setting, thanks to smaller Zoom classes that leave little room for distraction with just two or three students, but said she expects 1st- and 2nd-graders to have lost most ground since March. Some students in grades 4-6 gained progress during that time.
To stem some of the spring learning losses, the Illinois district encouraged all 5,200 students to participated in its summer school program, and at least 3,000 did, Walters said.
Schools with at least half Black or Hispanic student populations and at least half qualifying for free or reduced-price meals are more likely to be focusing on review material this fall than new instruction during remote learning, according to RAND Corp.’s survey of educators. And students in those schools are much less likely to complete schoolwork, the survey said.
Walters said she found after a review of her students’ workloads, that many were overwhelmed with unnecessary assignments and being taught below grade level. “You’ll never catch up that way,” she said.
“People are saying, ‘Kids aren’t engaged.’ Well, they weren’t before.”
Superintendent, Kankakee School District 111 in Illinois
For many predominately non-White, low-income districts like Kankakee School District 111 and Clayton County, the pandemic has forced a critical reevaluation of instructional content.
“We started with, ‘What do students really need to know?,’” said Ebony Lee, assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and assessment for Clayton County, whose team is charged with prioritizing content for the next three years. “ What’s most essential for this and future school year?”
Walters, meanwhile, scaled back on excess assignments, ensuring a majority of students are being taught on grade level and paired with intensive support.
Researchers suggest, and many leaders of districts with a focus on equity agree, that this fall's instruction should accelerate, not remediate — something that could widen gaps. Lee’s team picked three benchmarks to guide instructional choices:
What is the essential background students will need to bring to a current unit of study?
What information would students need to know for future courses?
What information would students need for leverage across the academic program?
Since the spring shutdowns began, problem- and project-based learning (PBL) have helped many districts keep student engagement up where it may have fallen flat while helping students process COVID-19’s impact and the civil rights upheaval. Many educators are hopeful for the future of the PBL model, which studies show can close gaps, increase engagement in STEM fields, and lend itself to hybrid learning.
‘Outcries for mental health’ help
A day after Kentucky’s attorney general announced the decision in the case of Breonna Taylor, a Black emergency room technician from Louisville who was killed in her home by police, students from Manual High School’s Black Student Alliance met virtually to grapple with the news.
No one was directly charged for Taylor's killing during the execution of a police warrant as part of a drug investigation, The Washington Post reported. Grand jurors indicted fired officer Brett Hankison on three counts of first-degree wanton endangerment, accusing him of risking the safety of three people in a neighboring apartment when his bullets entered Taylor's home. He pleaded not guilty.
Black students “are not as shocked about the ruling; they are just sitting with the fact that rulings like these seem to be our luck,” said Weathers, who is Black and supervises the Black Student Alliance.
Events like the fatal shootings of unarmed Black individuals by law enforcement, combined with the racial reckoning born out of COVID-19’s disparate impacts on the Black and Hispanic communities, has been mentally exhausting to students, educators say. It’s also what led Manual and other schools to prioritize the social-emotional well-being of students of color since school buildings shuttered in March.
To stay in close contact with the kids, Weathers’ teachers each connect with five to seven students individually on a weekly basis. Also, the school started advisory groups this fall, so “students are [virtually] with two trusted adults, and they talk about emotional health, coping strategies with stress, they talk about grades.”
Taylor said Clayton County schools eased students into the instruction using questioning prompts and writing opportunities for students to reflect on and share their feelings about current events, weaving SEL into the curriculum. Students aren’t just saying, “We need help,” she said, but they’re expressing it in assignments like journal entries.
Overall, Taylor echoed what many surveys have found, saying she has seen “outcries for mental health” help with her “students expressing more need for connection.”
Taylor's district has partnered with local social services and law enforcement to conduct student wellness checks, and is paying for outside organizations to offer mental-health wellness training sessions and services that have the ability to monitor emails, uploaded assignments and internet searches for red flags.
Academic fallout leads to instruction innovation
The long-term effects of the coronavirus on low-income non-White students' academic progress as well as district budgets are unknown. Experts have looked at the impacts of the Great Recession, which were still being felt when the pandemic hit the U.S., calling its fallout the “lost decade” in student achievement, with cuts in education spending strongly linked to lags in learning, especially for low-income students.
The financial fallout from COVID-19 is predicted to be much worse than the Great Recession, with academic achievement gaps for students of color and low-income learners following at its heels.
Educators and researchers are advocating for meaningful assessments and accessible data to identify gaps, intervene and adjust instruction based on interim results. But used and interpreted the wrong way, these assessments could funnel already marginalized students into remedial programs that disadvantage them, school leaders and researchers have warned.
The U.S. Department of Education, testing agencies such as NWEA and others have pushed now as the time to “rethink” assessments and growth — making both more flexible and relevant.
“I think that, best-case scenario, you have new practices and new methods of reaching students that enhance learning and emotional growth,” Taylor said. “Let’s be realistic: We will have learning loss and emotional adjustment. But we also have to look at the best part of it, in that we’ve been innovative and we’ve been able to create practices that are lasting and long term.”
Walters believes the pandemic is the push her district long needed to catapult into competency-based learning, an approach that focuses on advancing students’ skills at their own pace regardless of learning environment and one that many educators have turned to during closures. If anything has changed, she said, it's the transparency and willingness with which people are ready to talk about changes in instruction and practices to close opportunity gaps for low-income students of color that have long existed.
“People are saying, ‘Kids aren’t engaged.’ Well, they weren’t before,” she said.