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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Mind the Gap: Education Inequity Amidst COVID-19 Pandemic

Moderated by Dr. Rebekah Levine Coley, Chair of Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development, the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy facilitated a dynamic conversation regarding equity gaps in education on Monday March 29, 2021. 

The virtual panel that discussed the disruptions to educational systems and the inequity caused by these obstructions featured: eighth grade educational activist, Neema Avashia; the President of the Spencer Foundation, Dr. Na’ilah Suad Nasir; and the Superintendent of Medford Public Schools, Marice Edouard-Vincent.

“Educational issues and equity issues are rising to the forefront of many peoples’ minds today because of the incredibly unique challenges we are facing in the education sphere due to Covid,” Coley began. Coley continued to unveil some alarming statistics regarding pandemic-era education equity. 

Statistically, Coley cites that across 25 states, students are about three months behind in mathematics and about one month behind in reading. Averages yielded further disparities as students of color were about three to five months behind in mathematics while white students were only one to three months behind. 

These figures, however, are upper-bound estimates of children who have since returned to in-person instruction. A large number of students are still not back in school and are struggling with remote learning opportunities, especially students of color. A February report from the Institute of Education Sciences revealed that Black and Hispanic students are far more likely than white students to remain virtual. 

Data demonstrated that about 70% of Black and Hispanic children will stay remote as compared to 50% of white children who will continue with remote learning. Additionally, the Institute disclosed that only 47% of fourth graders and 38% of 8th graders were in a school for which in-person learning was an option for all students in the district. 

Edouard-Vincent, as an educator and administrator of over two decades, revealed a study on inequity in her own school district. In her tenure, she observed disparities between two Medford middle schools, McGlynn and Andrews, which are fed by four respective elementary districts.

McGlynn Middle School demonstrated a greater percentage of students of color, with 46% of white students. Only 39.6% of McGlynn middle school students paid for their lunch in full while the rest of the students received reduced and free meals. Comparatively, at Andrews Middle School, contrived of 76.3% white students, 71% of students paid for their meals in full. 

Edouard-Vincent noticed that the difference in terms of racial breakdown and socioeconomic status created a gap in terms of school performance. 

To combat this disparity issue, Edouard-Vincent created a lottery system to randomly assign students to a middle school. After the implementation of the lottery system, McGlynn Middle School now consists of 57.2% white students, with 51% of students receiving free and reduced lunch. At Andrews Middle School, the racial breakdown shifted from 73.6% to 54% white students, and 44.6% of students received some form of meal compensation. 

While the lottery system was not perfectly balanced, the attempt to bring about equity did incite change and brought more harmony between the two buildings. Edouard-Vincent was certainly pleased with the results, but recognized that they were long overdue and not nearly enough to fully correct the flawed education model. 

Avashia, an 8th grade civics teacher in the Boston public school system, said that the “most striking aspect about the conversation around equity and education during the pandemic is how much what people are talking about now pre-existed the pandemic.” 

She cited the struggle for access to technology, reliable broadband, mental health resources, modernized school buildings with appropriate space and ventilation, and housing and food stability as issues that have existed within the education system since her teaching tenure began over 18 years ago. 

“It took a pandemic for my school district to purchase a $19 box fan for my classroom,” Avashia stated, further citing the funding and equity between suburban and urban schools as well as between private and public schools as problematic for students and teachers. 

“As a collective we are realizing that marginalization and inequality don't serve anyone well,” joined Dr. Nasir, who introduced to the conversation the notion that COVID-19 concurs with three other pandemics: racism, an economic crisis, and a climate crisis. Nasir maintained that a drastic pivot across racial lines and towards a new model of education is necessary. 

In a system where funding matters, Nasir has pushed for an integration of schools that she hopes will increase resources for all students. Nasir hopes that COVID-19 will serve as an opportunity to “lean into what we now understand in order to create systems that work better for young people and their families.” 

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