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COVID-19: An opportunity for equitable practices in education

Empty classroom desks
Photo by Rubén Rodriguez on Unsplash

Unless you have been living off the grid in remote Alaska surviving on salmon and berries, you have heard of COVID-19. The horrible respiratory disease has stretched to almost every tiny corner of the globe and has impacted every aspect of our lives. Whether you are a CDC-compliant citizen using masks, hand sanitizer, and practicing social distancing, or are a conspiracy theorist watching “Plandemic” on repeat, there are certain things we are just unable to do right now. One of things – whether it be tiny kindergarteners learning to read, or seniors in college studying biochemistry – students are unable to attend school in the traditional brick and mortar way.

While privileged students may not love e-learning, this past spring, they likely had a fully dedicated device and internet to access their learning. They likely had consistent meals during the day. Their parents’ white-collar jobs allowed at least some professional flexibility so they could assist their children with their schoolwork. While living in a global pandemic and sheltering in place is emotionally straining and stressful for all, in the end, some livelihoods have not been greatly impacted.

On the other side of town, other parents left the house every day to work hourly wage jobs, exposing themselves and their families to the deadly disease. While they were gone, children cared for themselves, made themselves food, cared for younger siblings, and maybe logged in to school on a single device shared by all school-age children in the home. In the first two weeks of e-learning in Los Angeles, 15,000 high school students did not log in to any of their online platforms for school – mostly due to a complete lack of access to the internet.

Minnesota’s persistent gap

These stark disparities that are a reality in our country become even starker when additional strains are presented to already strained populations. Year over year, Minnesota is ranked among those states having the highest achievement gaps in the country. While there will be no standardized tests to analyze this year, it seems all but certain that COVID-19 will further extend this persistent opportunity gap.

Jennie Akerstrom Zumbusch
Jennie Akerstrom Zumbusch
Many parents breathed a sigh of relief when the school year was over. However, even before the sigh is over, the next wave of stress hits us in the face. Education leaders have no idea what school will look like in the fall. Some leaders have put forth various models of what school might look like. Barring a miracle vaccine, schools will likely be anywhere from zero percent capacity (all online) to 50% capacity (every other day or morning/afternoon shifts of different groups of students) this fall.

The thing that has not been adequately discussed among educational professionals is a fall learning model based in equity. Equity is a buzzword that makes people seem woke. You may have even seen the graphic of three little boys trying to look over a fence. One is tall, one is medium height, and one is short. If you give every kid a box to stand on in order to see over the fence, that is equality. The tall kid can see over the fence really well now; the medium kid can barely see over; and the short kid still cannot see. Equity means you give the boxes to those who need them – the short kid gets two, the medium kid gets one, and the tall kid gets none. If you are really woke, you have even seen the third picture, which is liberation – and there isn’t even a fence there! Let’s tear down the fence!

While the image makes intuitive and emotional sense, very few people know how that translates to actions in real life. The most common way is to shift fiscal resources at a state or local level. So then, equity sounds great to people in the fence image, but when school districts attempt to shift actual resources from their child to a different one, anger erupts. When funding shifts are attempted, large groups of affluent (read: white) parents threaten to pull their child out of the district and into another one or straight into a private school, which pulls much-needed resources from the public school system.

Doing things differently: Get boxes to the right kids

But COVID-19 has provided us an opportunity to do things differently. For example, we know how to wash our hands better and we know which meetings could have been an email. We also know that it is hard to be isolated from other humans. Years of educational research shows us that relationships matter for educational outcomes. Students with positive student-teacher relationships, positive peer relationships, positive relationships with out of school providers and coaches increase student motivation and success in school.

In the fall, if only some students can come into each classroom, spaced 6 feet apart, consider who those students could be. Place those students who would most benefit from in-person schooling – those with inconsistent access to meals or technology, those with special education needs who most benefit from special services, those who would benefit from seeing their teacher face-to-face, those who are three grades below reading level.

School this fall is not going to look like any fall we have ever seen. And maybe that is a good thing. Let’s finally get the boxes to the right kids.

Jennie Akerstrom Zumbusch holds a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago and is the process of completing her Ph.D. in education policy and leadership as part of the Executive Cohort program in Organizational Leadership and Policy Development at the University of Minnesota. She is the mother of three kids, ages 9, 6, and 4.


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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 06/26/2020 - 08:24 am.

    Instead of “investing” money in schools and have it trickle down to the kids, let us try an equitable approach.

    Let us invest directly in kids – all of them. Kids can attend the school of their choice and the funds will follow them. Schools can be established all over. Places of business could set up a schools for their employees, non-profits could set up schools. The possibilities are endless.

    Education MN could be turned into a testing agency that test kids on educational progress.

    The focus would be on education and results not on political power and the lack of results.

    Of course – those that are attached to the trickle down educational monopoly have no problem sending the same kids, back to the same failed schools, with the same poor results, with the same old rhetoric -“we need more money for education.” This same failed approach has been taking place for generations.

    The time is now to “Invest in kids.”

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