By Charisse Bremond-Weaver, President & CEO
Now that Los Angeles Unified School District has announced that our schools will remain closed for in-person learning this fall, we have to wrestle with the ways that COVID-19 school closures have exacerbated existing inequalities in our education system—and introduced new ones.
I sit on the Committee for Greater LA, a group that argues that in our recovery from the pandemic, there can be no going back to the way things used to be. Without a thoughtful and targeted response, these inequities in education will turn the gap between the haves and have-nots in our society into an unbridgeable canyon.
A new report by LAUSD on its own distance learning program highlights these risks. As the report puts it, “Compared to more advantaged students, fewer middle and high school students who are Black, Hispanic, living in low-income households, classified as English learners, have a disability, are in the District’s homeless program or are in foster care participated across all measures of online activity presented in this report. Low participation may show lost learning, which could take students years to recoup.”
Even in the best of times, the LA County educational system delivers too many poor outcomes to low-income students and students of color. African-American, American Indian, and Latino students have the lowest graduation rates, the highest dropout rates, the highest numbers of foster youth, English Language Learners, disabilities, and students experiencing homelessness. These students also exhibit the highest rates of chronic absenteeism. Twenty-five percent of African American students are chronically absent, as well as 21% of Pacific Islander and 21% of American Indian/Alaska Native students.
“What’s so disturbing about these numbers is that education is a pathway out of poverty, but poor students and those of color are the least likely to graduate and the most likely to drop out,” said Debra Duardo, the Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools.
Testing should never be taken as the sole measure of educational attainment. But it’s troubling that only 30% of African American, 38% of American Indian/Alaska Native, and 40% of Hispanic or Latino students meet or exceed the Smarter Balanced Assessment in English Language Arts, while 18% of African American, 26% of American Indian/Alaska Native, and 28% of Hispanic or Latino students meet or exceed on that same assessment tool in Mathematics.
And the transition from in-person learning to distance learning has created new challenges, starting with the digital divide. Distance learning requires students to receive instruction and assignments and to turn in their work via the internet. 39% of Latino schoolchildren and 35% of Black schoolchildren in LA County lack access to a computer and high-speed internet at home, compared to 13% of white children. The LA County Office of Education and LAUSD have worked to mitigate this issue, distributing devices and setting up internet hotspots for students, but significant gaps remain.
Distance learning also introduces other challenges. 18% of Latino children in LA County who attend school in grades K-12 live in an overcrowded household, compared to 5% of Black children and 2% of white children: these students often don’t have a good place to study at home. In poorer communities and communities of color, more students’ parents lack the language skills or the educational background to help them with homework.
“It’s like we’re taking every socioeconomic disadvantage that these kids face and doubling it,” said Miguel Santana, chair of the Committee for Greater Los Angeles.
English Language Learners will also face unique circumstances that require extra attention. For most students, absences such as those caused by COVID have a much greater negative impact on math than on reading, and the effects are worse for middle and high school students than for elementary school students. For English Language Learners, however, the worst effects of absenteeism show up in reading, and the effects are worse in elementary school than in later grades.
In addition, the continuation of distance learnings complicates one of the most successful social service initiatives in recent years, namely Community Schools. 15 schools in LA County have served as pilots for this program, serving as hubs for wraparound social services, ranging from mental health to housing assistance to food assistance. This model has already demonstrated promising results in helping some of the most high-need families in the county, but closed schools make delivering these services much harder.
There is no doubt that LAUSD and the other school districts in LA County must take the steps necessary to guarantee the safety of more than 2 million school-age children, as well as the many adults who serve as teachers, janitors, administrators, and other essential school staff, up to and including keeping schools closed until they can be safely reopened. But we must also face head-on the new disruptions and inequities that such an approach will cause, and we must find specific and targeted remedies to offset them. Otherwise, we risk creating an ever-more unjust education system for our students today, thus creating a more unjust society for the future.
Said Duardo, “If we really believe that children are the future, then we have to invest in them in the present.”