Many inequities existed before the pandemic; it’s more important than ever to eliminate them
Longstanding inequities in education and racial injustice have been magnified during the coronavirus pandemic. More than 42% of public school students were living in poverty before the pandemic, and it has had a devastating economic impact on many hourly workers and low-wage earners. Students in poorer communities experience more food insecurity, less access to technology, higher levels of trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACES), and less job security and safety for family members. These phenomena have been exacerbated during the pandemic and have disproportionately harmed Black and Brown students.
The trauma that the pandemic has caused students and educators must be addressed. So must the trauma caused by widely publicized killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. The need to address and end race-based inequity has — hopefully — reached a long overdue tipping point across the nation. The change that protesters and marchers demand is desperately needed. The passion leading to marches and protests is deeply rooted in the traumatic experiences of too many Black and Brown students and families. Addressing that trauma is essential when school is back in session.
Crisis distance learning this spring was disproportionately inadequate for lower-income students. There are deep concerns about how meaningfully it engaged students, according to both 80% of Maryland educators polled by MSEA and a report by the Maryland Longitudinal Data Service showing distressingly high levels of students not participating in distance learning. Crisis distance learning also could not give special education students critical one-on-one in-person contact that enables them to make the kind of progress expected in their IEPs; the unique and targeted support that can benefit English language learners was also challenging to provide during crisis distance learning.
Learning gaps have been inequitably exacerbated and widened across the state. Educators will need to address these gaps and start to fill them — while also providing new levels of trauma-informed instruction and care. The last thing that schools should be spending their time on next school year is focusing on high-stakes standardized testing that will take away from closing gaps and addressing student trauma. That’s why MSEA has called for a waiver for statewide standardized testing (MCAP) for the next school year.
Educators must be supported, their contracts protected, and they should not be penalized for the achievement gaps widened by the pandemic. Time and extra staffing, not cuts, will be needed to make up the lost ground and meet the needs of all students. MSEA will fight for those essentials to be supported financially and in policy.
Although State School Superintendent Karen Salmon has echoed MSEA’s caution that equity must underpin the statewide recovery from the pandemic, the state’s recovery plan does little to ensure that equity is realized. The state’s plan merely advises local school districts to implement and adhere to their local equity plans.
As reopening plans are made, students who have historically suffered inequities must be a top priority. Reopening plans must answer several questions:
● Who will benefit from the choices and decisions being made, and who will be harmed?
● Does the plan work for the most marginalized and vulnerable students and staff?
● How are we explicitly addressing racial and economic disparities and/or impacts?
● Whose conditions are being improved?
● Whose voices are part of creating the solutions?
● Who is part of the decision-making process?
MSEA and local associations will hold MSDE and local systems accountable for a commitment to equity, ensuring that staffing levels and priorities align with identified needs of the most vulnerable students. Funding shortfalls nearly always impact districts the hardest where the inequity is the greatest. Educators — particularly those in schools with the highest levels of poverty — need more, not less, support during and after the pandemic to recover from higher levels of trauma and even greater gaps in equity brought on by health issues, access limitations, and food and financial insecurity.
As MSEA President Cheryl Bost stated after the murder of George Floyd, we must call for “policies to be put in place in Maryland and throughout the country to protect Black and Brown lives and erase the structural and institutional racism and inequities that have been built into the fabric of our country. We will work with our local associations and allies for however long it takes to ensure this happens.” It’s time — past time — to engage in and build upon conversations at the state and local level to do what we can as educators to break down the barriers that stand before too many students of color. There is more we can and must do to fight for equity and racial and social justice.
Good policy requires funding — and to fight for equity we must make sure that education funding is protected and expanded rather than cut. While Congress responded to the immediate economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic by passing the CARES Act in March, that only helped to backfill potential lost revenue. Our students won’t just need the same level of support during the next school year — they’ll need even more to overcome the inequities exposed and deepened during this year’s crisis distance learning.
That’s exactly why the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the General Assembly this year, is so important. The Blueprint contains millions of dollars for additional staff, educator diversity, cultural competency, community school funding, special education funding, and career technical education that would lift all Marylanders up financially. The governor’s veto has put those programs on hold. Overriding his veto and enacting the Blueprint will bring us closer to equity.
Additional federal relief is needed and would be available in the federal HEROES Act, HR6800. It would provide $60 billion to states for education, and as drafted the HEROES Act would bring nearly $1.4 billion to Maryland for education. The bill also includes about $1 trillion in aid to state, local, territorial, and tribal governments, which is intended to help governments fund schools as well as other government services. The House passed HR6800 in May, but the Senate has not acted.
Inequities have harmed education and social conditions for too long and have grown during the pandemic. As educators we have an opportunity and an obligation to change those conditions. To succeed we need to be activists at the federal, state, and local levels to secure the funding that our students and schools need to reverse systemic racism and inequities that should have been addressed long ago and have worsened during the pandemic.