The Pandemic Unearths the Raw Reality of Educational Inequity and Disparity

The Pandemic Unearths the Raw Reality of Educational Inequity and Disparity

By Howard M. Knoff, Ph.D., President of Project ACHIEVE Educational Solutions

COVID-19 Has Forced Us to Realize That We Need to Change the Village

With the pandemic still dominating our world in innumerable ways, most of us are still sequestered, many states have shuttered their schools for the year, and home-schooling/distance learning has become a (virtual) reality for many students, teachers, and parents/guardians. And these are all major issues that, right now, do not yet have an “expiration date.”

Critically, with these issues have come the waves of emotions (for example, anxiety, fear, frustration, loss, and grief) that have similarly impacted us personally—along with our children, adolescents, students, and significant others. And yet, simultaneously, we have learned that it truly “takes a village”—in ways that we could not have previously imagined.

Indeed, this pandemic has reinforced many realities:

  • Our world is even smaller than we ever could have believed.
  • Otherwise, how could COVID-19 have been transmitted worldwide in so short a time?
  • The health of our family, neighbors, community, town, state, country, continent, and world depends on all of us.

It depends on—to name a few—all of us staying at home and practicing physical distancing; our grocery stores, truckers, and supply chains; our medical personnel and first responders; our epidemiologists, vaccine researchers, and business partners; and our formal and informal leaders—many of whom have led with clarity, courage, consistency, and the common good in mind.

Even though we are taking out a mortgage (literally) on our futures, the pandemic has reinforced the federal reality that when there is a need for money, funding, and economic relief… somehow, the money is there. This should be a “post-COVID-19 mental note” when our country recalibrates our economy and funding priorities—and when the education community will decide how to use its share.

Remember that 2009’s $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act gave billions of dollars to schools… and yet that money did not close (or permanently close) the disparities in our schools a full decade later.

The inequities of the past are the inequities of the present.

Relative to the latter reality, the question is: Will we seize this opportunity, now and in the months to come, to truly address in built-in, systemic inequities and disparities in our country, states, communities, and educational systems?

COVID-19 and Social Inequity in the US

While COVID-19 has impacted millions across the globe, even in the midst of this continuing crisis, it is clear that COVID-19 is not a “fair and equitable disease.” Clearly, we all know that this virus has killed more elderly patients, as well as those with chronic medical conditions including heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension. But we also know that COVID-19 has magnified many of the societal inequities and disparities that existed before the first patient was ever hospitalized.

For example, as chronicled by the Anti-Defamation League:

People with lower incomes and fewer financial resources are impacted disproportionately, as they struggle to navigate the health care system, school closings, reduction in employment and shelter-in-place restrictions. With working from home the “new normal” and shutdowns of cities and states across the country, many workers have lost or will soon lose their jobs.

Many members of marginalized groups have already experienced disproportionate harm.

People who are homeless or incarcerated are particularly vulnerable because of crowded and unsanitary conditions, inability to engage in social distancing and more.

Immigrants and those who are undocumented face vulnerabilities with the health care system (i.e., fear or seeking help and lack of coverage). Many recent immigrants work in jobs without sick leave and are unable to self-quarantine, making them much more susceptible to the virus than the general population.

We are seeing bias and hate that targets the Asian American community through scapegoating and stereotyping. In addition, bullying, harassment and slurs have become commonplace. And, there is a reported increase in hate crimes against Asian American people.

Victims of domestic abuse have been further marginalized and at risk because there is more time at home, stress and financial strain.

While a majority of our K-12 schools and colleges close their buildings and move to online learning, disparities such as food insecurity, insufficient digital access, and lack of critical social services persist and are magnified.

 New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, on April 8th, may have put it best.

Noting that Black New Yorkers comprise 28% of the COVID-19 deaths in New York City and 18% of deaths in New York state—despite being 22% and 9% of the population, respectively. . . and that Hispanics represent 34% and 14% of the COVID-19 City and State deaths—despite being 29% of the City’s and 11% of the State’s population, respectively, he stated:

Why are more African Americans and Latinos affected? We’re seeing this around the country. Comorbidity, I understand that, but I think there’s something more to it. You know, it always seems that the poorest people pay the highest price. Why is that? Whatever the situation is. (Immediately after Katrina), The people standing on those rooftops were not rich white people.

Let’s figure it out. Let’s do the work. Let’s do the research. Let’s learn from these moments, let’s learn these lessons and let’s do it now.

COVID-19 and Educational Inequity and Disparity in the US

Relative to the social and economic inequities and disparities that “trickle down” to our schools and districts, most administrators more fully understand the student-specific academic and health, mental health, and wellness effects of this pandemic—particularly among students living in poverty, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students who are homeless. Moreover, these educators know that many of these groups overlap—exponentially magnifying the impact of the pandemic.

Finally, let’s all remember that there are 13 different possible disability areas that our students with disabilities are experiencing, and that:

  • These disabilities have different levels of severity;
  • These students require different intensity levels of services, supports, interventions, and programs;
  • Most students with disabilities need special education instruction, but many also need related services like counseling, speech, occupational therapy, and physical therapy;
  • Some of these students need instructional or learning-related accommodations—some that are challenging to deliver when students and teachers are in different locations; and
  • Some students with disabilities experience multiple disabilities—which require the prioritization and integration of different services and supports.

Other Inequities and Disparities

Tens of thousands of schools across our country serve majority (or large) percentages of students from poverty, students of color, English-language and/or Native American learners, and/or students with disabilities. As noted earlier, many of these schools are now closed due to the virus, and are directly confronting disparities such as food insecurity, insufficient digital/remote learning access (e.g., computers, internet availability, and bandwidth strength), and lack of critical social services persist and are magnified.

Critically, an April 10th Education Week survey of 1,720 nationally representative educators revealed that most teachers are communicating with their students through e-mails and online instant messages. In fact, more than 40% of these educators noted that their students were not involved in any online communication/conferencing platforms with video capabilities. In addition, this survey reported that 21% of these educators’ students were not participating in any distance- or home-learning activities, and that almost one-third of the students high-poverty communities were not participating in remote learning.

But additional student disparities exist for students from poverty, students of color, English-language and/or Native American learners, and/or students with disabilities

These students have more potential for health and/or behavioral/ mental health problems—including the same problems with their family members. [This may impact their remote-learning attendance, attention, and assignment follow-through.]

These students—many of whom are already dealing with traumatic or emotionally distressed pasts—are now potentially experiencing additional emotionally debilitating situations that are compounded by their pasts. [This, once again, may impact their academic engagement, motivation, concentration, and fight-flight-freeze responsivity.]

As with students with disabilities, there are many languages, cultures, and backgrounds in the English-language learner “group.” Many schools do not have access to professionals who can conduct academic lessons or communicate with parents/guardians in a wide range of languages in culturally-sensitive ways.

Many of these students already had more inexperienced teachers with fewer academic materials and resources. These inequities may now be exacerbated as these same teachers need to learn how to both technologically and pedagogically teach in virtually effective ways.

Many of these students have now lost access to the academic and social-emotional supports (e.g., tutors, peer mentors, counselors, and other adults) that they need to succeed in school.

NONE of these disparities are new. They existed before this pandemic. Their existence and impact have tragically been magnified, exacerbated, or complicated by the current situation. And even more concerning are new reports that these inequity and disparity gaps—and their impacts—are likely to increase in our post-COVID-19 educational worlds.

A Call to Action:  What Will the Future Bring?

While none of us can predict the future, recent reports are already suggesting that educational funding will be negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic—especially given an expected recession. These reports then predict that this will result in decreases in student achievement and increases in the already-existing gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

None of these predictions are positive for students from poverty, students of color, English-language and/or Native American learners, students with disabilities, and similar others. And so, the Question is:  How do we change this future?

The Predicted Financial Impact of the Pandemic

Even before an anticipated recession, it is essential to note that the recently passed and signed (March 27, 2020) $2 Trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act probably will not prevent a decline in this year’s per-pupil spending in education across all 50 states. Indeed, according to an April 7th Education Week article, despite the $13.5 billion from the CARES Act earmarked for both K-2 and higher education:

As a souring economy eats into states’ resources this year, the emergency airlift of federal money could help mitigate the damage to the nation as a whole and states in particular.

Yet already, states are seeing their economies start to slide and are slashing their spending.

Some observers anxiously foresee a round of cuts similar to the impact on school budgets triggered by the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, which some evidence indicates hurt students’ performance and their odds of going to college, particularly for students of color. The extent to which per-pupil spending has rebounded since the Great Recession varies significantly between states. [CLICK HERE for Article]

If this financial prediction prevails, the most important Questions are:

  • How will each state allocate its educational funds to its school districts?
  • Will funding be determined by census, by need, or to correct for past inequities and disparities?

If each state allocates its money as in the past, the “rich” will have an easier time of tempering the anticipated funding declines, and the “poor” will get poorer.

The proof?  We only have to look at the near-present to predict this near-future. Exactly one year ago, the Albert Shanker Institute released a report The Adequacy and Fairness of State School Finance Systems (April, 2019) based on data from the 2015-2106 school year [CLICK HERE for the report]. Using research, state and local spending patterns, and student test scores, the authors concluded that, while states were spending enough money for middle class and wealthier students to meet states’ academic standards, they were spending less on students living in poverty.

Critically, the report also noted that these latter students require more funding, because they require more-qualified teachers, stable learning environments, and multi-tiered wrap-around supplemental and related (e.g., social, emotional, and behavioral intervention) services. According to the authors:

There is now widespread agreement, backed by research, that we cannot improve education outcomes without providing schools—particularly schools serving disadvantaged student populations—with the resources necessary for doing so.  Put simply: we can’t decide how best to spend money for schools unless schools have enough money to spend.

The vast majority of states spend well under the levels that would be necessary for their higher-poverty districts to achieve national average test scores. States should consider replacing their existing funding formulas with ones that provide more money for schools serving a high concentration of these students.

States historically have attempted to even out funding disparities between districts by providing more money to those with low property value and, inevitably, poorer students. But states are falling short in those efforts. While states currently spend on average around $13,000 on high-poverty school districts, they should be spending more than $20,000 on those districts.

The Shanker Institute report followed a February, 2019 report from EdBuild, a non-profit organization that analyzes school funding issues [CLICK HERE for report]. This report noted the significant funding gaps that approximately 12.8 million of our nation’s students experience because they are enrolled in “racially concentrated” districts with student bodies where 75% of the students are non-white. More specifically, the report stated that racially concentrated non-white districts received, on average, only $11,682 of funding per student each year, while racially concentrated white districts received $13,908 per student each year.

As 27% of our nation’s students live in racially concentrated non-white districts, and 26% of our nation’s students live in racially concentrated white districts, this translates to a $23 billion funding gap per year that favors white over non-white districts, despite them serving approximately the same number of students.

At a functional, state-by-state level, the EdBuild report stated that, “7 million students are enrolled in high-poverty non-white districts in states that provide less funding, on average, to those systems than their high-poverty white counterparts. That is 78% of the students in racially concentrated, high-poverty districts across the states in our analysis.”

Given this, the funding gap of 2019 is likely to increase due to the “Pandemic Recession Gap of 2020.”

The Predicted Academic Impact of the Pandemic

As with the pre-existing funding gap, the academic achievement gap between students from middle class/high and struggling/low economic backgrounds, Caucasian and students of color, and non-disabled versus students with disabilities has been evident for decades.

But the additional economic and educational funding impact of the pandemic on students’ academic achievement can be predicted from Kevin Mahnken’s March 26th article, “What the Great Recession Tells Us About the Pandemic Downturn to Come: Expect Declining Student Performance, Widening Achievement Gaps” [CLICK HERE for article]. Based on the 2008 global financial crisis and resulting recession, he predicts the following 2020 outcomes:

    • Increased unemployment, and decreased family and business spending resulting in decreased tax revenues. For schools dependent on state and local tax income, this means fewer resources. And for schools serving predominantly poor students, the resource limits will likely be staggering.
    • Declines in students’ reading and math scores that will grow cumulatively over the next few years, and that will be most pronounced in school districts serving predominantly low-income and minority students.
    • Increases in disadvantaged students’ social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges (e.g., due to family finances, homelessness, the lost of family members to COVID-19) with concomitant increases in the need for (competent) mental health professionals and other multi-tiered services and supports.
    • Increases in disadvantaged students’ health and wellness challenges with concomitant effects on their attendance, engagement, and achievement.

In summary, Mahnken made the following points:

Added to the perennial difficulties bedeviling families during tough economic times, the novel feature of a nationwide pandemic will pose unique risks to the poor. Given the existing rates of infection, educators could spend much of the 2020-21 school year dealing with children who have lost caregivers to COVID-19.

Asked to conjure a nightmare scenario, (there are) worrie(s) that learning losses related to extended school closures might be compounded by a “second-wave effect” of budget cuts in the fall.

If, next year, the kids can’t go back to school, and on top of that, school budgets are being cut by 10 or 15 percent, how those schools are going to implement the virtual learning systems when they’ve had to lay off a significant portion of their teacher labor force is a completely unknown quantity. That has never happened before — kids having to work from home, and schools having to deal with massive layoffs at the same time.

These predictions—of pandemic-related student funding and achievement gaps added onto the pre-existing gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students—spell an inequity and disparity “death knoll” for another generation of disadvantaged students.

Given that the pandemic will force us to reform, reorganize, and regenerate how we educate all students, is this not the time to reconceptualize from the “bottom-up?” That is: Why shouldn’t we first (re)design the most equitable and effective educational systems for our students from poverty, students of color, English-language and/or Native American learners, students with disabilities, and similar others. . . knowing that these “core” systems will work for our advantaged students as well?

An EdSurge article from April 7, 2020 reported on the results of an end-of-March survey that more than 5,000 U.S. teachers responded to. When asked to describe the three most frequent emotions that they felt each day during this pandemic, the most-often mentioned adjectives they used  were anxious, fearful, worried and overwhelmed.

The reasons for these feelings, according to these teachers, involve (a) their general fears that they or someone in their family will contract COVID-19; (b) their stress around managing their own and their families’ needs; and (c) their anxiety around teaching full-time from home while simultaneously mastering new distance learning technologies.

As I talk with administrators across the country, I hear these same emotions, but some of their reasons for these feelings include concerns about:

  • The impact of the inequities and disparities between their advantaged and disadvantaged students. . . that we have discussed throughout this Blog;
  • The limitations of the current fiscal situation, and the financial status of their districts and schools in the year to come; and
  • Federal and state policies that prevent them from flexibly addressing their student and staff needs—once again, with an eye toward their most needy students.

Earlier, I quoted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo who said:

Why are more African Americans and Latinos affected? We’re seeing this around the country.

Let’s figure it out. Let’s do the work. Let’s do the research. Let’s learn from these moments and let’s learn these lessons and let’s do it now.

Not one week earlier, Governor Cuomo also said:

And we’re going to get through it because we are New York, and because we’ve dealt with a lot of things, and because we are smart. You have to be smart to make it in New York.

And we are resourceful, and we are showing how resourceful we are.

And because we are united, and when you are united, there is nothing you can’t do.

And because we are New York tough. We are tough. You have to be tough. This place makes you tough. But it makes you tough in a good way.

We’re going to make it because I love New York, and I love New York because New York loves you. New York loves all of you. Black and white and brown and Asian and short and tall and gay and straight. New York loves everyone.

That’s why I love New York. It always has, it always will. And at the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day, and this is a long day, love wins. Always. And it will win again through this virus.

Read the quote above and substitute the word “America” for “New York.”

My friends, we will get through this crisis. . . what I called a “Disruptive Opportunity” in my last Blog message. We will get through with courage, cooperation, goodwill, fortitude, contribution, and honor. But as we overcome this pandemic, let’s remember its inequitable impact. And let’s look each other in the eyes and commit to “figuring it out,” and “learning the lessons.”

We need to minimize the academic and social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health impact of this pandemic on all of our children and adolescents. But we especially need to take action on behalf of our students from poverty, students of color, English-language and/or Native American learners, students with disabilities, and similar others. We need to take action now—to minimize the impacts of this pandemic. But we also need to take action in the coming months as we prepare for the next school year.

If we are truly living in a “new normal,” let’s create a “new educational normal” in the coming months. . . a “new normal” where the current inequities and disparities in our educational systems disappear, and where the students who have been harmed by these inequities and disparities in the past are “made whole” for their futures.

Their futures…. and the futures of their children.


Howie Knoff, PhD. is an international consultant in the areas of school improvement, social-emotional learning, multi-tiered systems of support, and behavioral interventions for challenging students. He was a Full Professor and Director of the School Psychology Program at the University of South Florida for 18 years, and the Director of the federally-funded State Improvement Grant for the Arkansas Department of Education for 13 years. The author of over 20 books and 100 articles or book chapters, Howie was the 21st president of National Association of School Psychologists.

For more information on Howie’s work, go to:  www.projectachieve.info  or contact him at:  knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net.