• Inclusion Advocate

(Op-Ed) Fighting the Pandemic of Educational Inequality

Updated: Jul 31

Guest contributor: Oliver Ni

A First Grade Class During COVID-19 (Brian Ulrich, New York Times)

She went to school. She learned to sit through Zoom lectures and take notes. She figured out how to work through technical problems and connection issues. She learned how to cope with her siblings’ quarreling, manage her chores and duties, avoid her parents’ confrontations, and deal with loneliness. She felt overwhelmed, unsupported, forgotten, and confused.

She longs to go back to school.

She is one of the millions of children who had their education stymied as the U.S. scrambles to recover from COVID’s ravaging. Institutions that helped facilitate a safe space for learning are now absent, forcing students to support themselves with the limited resources available. These unfavorable conditions have exacerbated existing educational inequalities and reversed years of progress by educators and administrators to provide more opportunities to under-resourced schools. Chicago, a city highly segregated along racial and socioeconomic lines, paints a clear picture of the magnitude of problems experienced across the nation.

Northwestern, School of Medicine

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, educational inequality ran rampant throughout Chicago across multiple metrics, putting low-income students of color at an extreme disadvantage. In the 2014-15 school year, schools with child poverty rates in the top 25% received 18% fewer funds per child than the bottom 25% of schools throughout Illinois, suggesting a fundamentally flawed system for allocating resources. Data obtained through the Illinois State Board of Education and Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the U.S.’ third-largest school district, were used to analyze rates of police involvement in schools. Analysis showed that students of color, who populate the South and West Sides of Chicago, were disproportionately targeted compared to their white counterparts. NWEA standardized testing scores also show that while 92% of white-majority schools in CPS are above the 80th percentile of reading scores, only 9% of Black-majority schools are in the same threshold.

Source: Northwestern University

The image on the right is created by Dr. Angel Alvarez from the Feinberg School of Medicine. Darker red represents higher death rates from COVID, whereas the black pins represent low-return schools and the blue pins represent high-return schools.

COVID’s arrival has only worsened the current disparities and introduced its own unique challenges into the educational system. During the beginning of remote learning, CPS estimated that 115,000 students needed electronic devices — a majority of whom were low-income students of color. As the pandemic started to slow down in the spring of 2021, in-person learning became an option for families. Based on data from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to CPS, 72.37% of white students opted to return to school, compared to 35.47% of Asian students, 35.60% of Latinx students, and 44.11% of Black students. These astronomical differences coincide with COVID-related data across Chicago, where the aforementioned South and West Sides faced significantly higher mortality and infection rates with lower vaccination rates compared to the white-majority, more affluent North Side.

The major disparities in return rates, combined with technological issues and inadequate learning resources from home, create a dangerous world where learning loss runs rampant. Low-quality remote learning, an unfortunate reality for numerous students, could result in 7-11 months of learning loss between April 2020 and January 2021. Comparisons to historical standardized scores also reveal that students of color lag behind their white counterparts across both reading and math in multiple grade levels. While in-school learning already saw major inconsistencies across racial lines, remote learning has only worsened this trend and differing return rates to classrooms can further widen the educational gap.

The dangers are clear. As wealth inequality has reached a historic mark for the U.S., as millions continue to struggle in the purgatory of intergenerational poverty, as a broken system disintegrates even further with the onset of the pandemic, education can be the key to social mobility. However, quality education for all will become a distant mirage if we stand by and watch COVID deepen the rifts that divide our schools. It is inexcusable for a nation built upon the power of its people to allow the barriers of privilege to hold back its own children. We must answer the call to action to uplift our nation’s students, one classroom at a time.

She needs to go back to school. So let us provide a safe, resourceful, and enriching space for her and millions of others.


The opinions expressed in this op-ed represent those of the author(s) only, and Inclusion Advocate's publication of it alone should not be taken as an endorsement.

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