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Fighting for Fairness Amid a Pandemic
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty and Laura Baker/Education Week

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent school shutdowns didn't create the racial and economic inequities that have been woven into the nation's educational system for generations.

But they surely helped to deepen them.

Black, Latino, and American Indian students are more likely than their white or Asian peers to lack access to computers and high-speed internet, to be poor, live in crowded households that make concentrating on schoolwork a challenge, be linguistically isolated, or have no adult in the household who has completed high school, according to the Urban Institute.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day
Part 2: Scheduling the School Year
Part 3: Tackling the Transportation Problem
Part 4: How to Make Remote Learning Work
Part 5: Teaching and Learning
Part 6: Overcoming Learning Loss
Part 7: Teaching Social-Emotional Skills
Part 8: Closing Equity Gaps
Full Report: How We Go Back to School

All those factors leave these children and youths vulnerable in normal times, let alone during the seismic shift in teaching and learning driven by the pandemic.

On top of all that, the same demographic groups are more likely to be dealing with the direct impact of the outbreak. Black and Latino people and American Indians are nearly three times more likely than non-Hispanic white Americans to be infected with the coronavirus, based on current federal data. And Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to die from it.

With such intractable problems facing families and districts, is it possible to avoid a repeat of the previous school year?

There's no alternative but to try, say educational leaders who focus on equity. One thing they agree educators must not do is shunt some students into open-ended remediation. Even though it makes some intuitive sense to spend time making up for missed lessons, the students put on a remedial track run the risk of being left forever behind their peers.

And most likely to fall into that category would be the students who faced profound opportunity gaps before the pandemic started.

"The last thing we need to do is continue to perpetuate the inequities that have been a part of our education system for decades," said Luvelle Brown, the superintendent of Ithaca, N.Y., schools. Equity is about "reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails," he said, and cultivating every student's gifts and talents, rather than focusing on perceived deficits.

As large as the task is, leaders also don't have to fumble around for solutions. There are concrete steps that teachers, school leaders, and districts can take to support their most vulnerable students.

And they're eager to have that guidance, even as school in some form-whether fully remote, in-person, or hybrid-gets underway, said Karen Hawley Miles, the president and chief executive officer of Education Resource Strategies. ERS works with school districts to help them better use their people, time, and money.

"We are working with a lot of districts on their plans now and [equity is] a piece that still absolutely needs to evolve," Miles said. "There still is a huge appetite for help in figuring out how to do this."

Education Week spoke to more than a dozen education leaders and other experts to capture some common themes about how to create an education system that can serve students more equitably. Here are their ideas:

For students who are behind, build a scaffold and accelerate.

Suzy Pepper Rollins, formerly the remedial education coordinator for Cobb County Schools in Marietta, Ga., published her book, "Teaching Vulnerable Learners," well before the pandemic consumed public education.

But the lessons fit the current circumstances. Focusing relentlessly on where a student isn't measuring up according to a predetermined standard "actually can break them," she said.

Teachers can be particularly strategic in figuring out what knowledge a student needs to progress in a grade-level lesson, Rollins said. And then they can provide boosts-Rollins calls them "blasts from the past." That may mean, for example, writing down a "cheat sheet" of physics formulas, or a table of multiplication facts. Students can refer to that information as they move forward.

Also important is giving students frequent feedback and allowing them multiple options for showing what they know, Rollins said. Standardized pretests aren't as important as frequent formative assessments that can help a teacher tailor instruction.

"When you look at what will happen to them if we don't support these kids, the outcomes are pretty bleak," Rollins said. "We just have got to be super positive and hand them a fresh start."

Laptops and internet access are essential. But so is curriculum.

Dolton West School District 148 serves about five square miles in the dense suburbs of the Chicago Southland region of Illinois. San Juan ISD in Blanding, Utah, sprawls across nearly 8,000 square miles of deep canyons and soaring mountains.

Geographical contrasts aside, both districts educate students who were left behind during the spring shift to remote learning. Almost all of District 148's 2,400 students are Black or Hispanic and economically disadvantaged. About 55 percent of San Juan ISD's 3,000 students are Navajo, 45 percent are white, and almost all are from low-income families.

While other districts managed to set up online learning and synchronous classes, these two districts and many others like them struggled to keep students fed and pushed out paper packets of homework assignments.

"We were clearly in a crisis situation. Quite frankly, we learned what not to do," said Kevin J. Nohelty, the District 148 superintendent.

In San Juan, the rugged geography makes it impossible to access any internet connection, particularly in the part of the district located within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation. And when hot spots can pick up a signal, it might not be strong enough to sustain videoconferencing, said Superintendent Ron Nielson.

Even for students who did have internet access, "when we went to virtual teaching, our teachers did not have a curriculum that was suitable for that kind of delivery. They were not trained in any kind of virtual delivery," Nielson said. At one point, teachers were traveling by school bus to deliver paper packets, a clunky workaround that eventually was phased out.

District 148 now has bought enough computers and internet hot spots for its entire student population, which can help parents save money, Nohelty said.

"I never want to be in this situation again where things are so much out of my control, and I can't deliver instruction the way our kids need it and deserve it," Nohelty said.

Utah lawmakers have committed to paying $4 million to expand San Juan's local area network into areas that currently cannot be served by internet hotspots.

Both district leaders are now trying to move beyond connectivity to ensuring students receive rigorous instruction. That has meant a lot of professional development for teachers over the summer.

But there are still concerns: In District 148, the entire system will start the year fully remote. But in San Juan, students living within the Navajo Nation will engage in remote learning, which was often the strong preference of families who have been personally impacted by the pandemic, Nielson said, while students living outside the reservation's boundaries, in the towns served by the district preferred a return to in-person schooling. That means two different forms of instruction, with one group of students still facing spotty Internet access.

"We've worked a lot on that, to limit the disparities between the two different delivery methods. We need a consistent curriculum, even in our schools that will start with students in them," Nielson said. "We will have students start the school in person, but perhaps because of exposure will be quarantined for two weeks or longer," he said. Students may be shifting between in-person and remote learning for some time.

"This is my 32nd year in education, and I've never seen anything like this. This has provided the greatest educational challenge I've ever seen," Nielson said.

Read More: Remote Learning Checklist (Education Resource Strategies)

Move beyond parent "engagement" to true parent partnership.

Millions of elementary students across the country use Zearn, a math program that provides hands-on as well as individualized online instruction. Researchers from Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit research group based at Harvard University, used Zearn's participation and progress data to examine disparities in how different districts were responding to the pandemic school closures.

The differences were stark. School districts that served high-income ZIP codes saw their Zearn participation rate rise by 45 percent in May, compared to January.

In contrast, the participation rate of districts that served low-income districts fell by 36 percent over the same time period. By this measure, parents in affluent areas were moving their children along, while parents in lower-income districts were not just stalled, they were falling behind.

Shalinee Sharma, the co-founder and CEO of Zearn, offers two takeaways from this data. First, the inequities, while alarming, are reversible.

"Learning loss is real, but let's not panic," she said. "If we catastrophize it, we stigmatize those students and we panic teachers."

And second, the drops were not universal. There were some lower-income school systems that saw increases in student progress and participation. What distinguishes those districts, Sharma said, seems to be the strength of their parent outreach programs. They worked to ensure parents knew how to get their children signed up and working on the platform.

The Jefferson Parish school district in Louisiana, the largest in the state, bucked both state and national trends. The system is about 40 percent Black, 27 percent Hispanic, and 27 percent white. About 80 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.

Over the course of the spring school closures, participation rates in the Zearn learning platform in Jefferson Parish shot up by 69 percent. That's a marked contrast from the statewide participation rate, which dropped by 57 percent.

Jenna Chiasson, Louisiana's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, held a similar position in Jefferson Parish until June. She explained that in the first frantic days after the governor announced that schools were closing, the district created a telephone hotline for families that operated from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and was staffed by central office employees, principals, and assistant principals. The district also brought in a third-party agency to help direct questions that came from parents who spoke languages other than English.

The early questions were mostly about logistics, like accessing passwords and computer troubleshooting. Over time, however, parents started asking more questions about how to support their children academically. The hotline operated until the end of the school year. For the new year, the district is continuing to offer a hotline, focused on providing technical support.

Jefferson Parish also decided that students could use the fourth academic quarter to improve their grades. Students wouldn't be penalized for not doing assignments in the fourth quarter, but it did offer them an opportunity to pull their grades up. Acknowledging and grading work at home helped keep families engaged, Chiasson said.

"What a lot of people call parent engagement is what I would call communication-pushing out communication one way," Chiasson said. "What we were able to do pretty successfully was form a partnership. We also welcomed [parent] communication back to us."

Accept that whatever plans you start the year with will change.

Amid all the uncertainty and stress, there are glimmers of opportunity, said Miles, with Education Resource Strategies. Students will be facing the same challenges of returning to a school system that may be nothing like what they remembered. Many students also face an interrupted educational trajectory.

"It creates a larger set of folks who are interested in how we personalize education, how we do targeted acceleration," Miles said. "It exposes and engages more people in that challenge."

Betty Chang, a director at ERS, said that before the pandemic, it had sometimes taken too long for schools to figure out a plan of action for any area of concern.

"Those cycles need to be much shorter. We need to intervene quicker and sooner," Chang said. "In some ways, it feels more hopeless and stressful than ever-but in some ways, anything goes now, because we have to do it. We're going to do what we need to do."