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In Schools, Equity Should be a Verb

One month.

That’s how long it took for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to officially close schools for the remainder of the year, after declaring a public health emergency and temporarily closing them on March 13.

That’s also how long East Baton Rouge Schools had to come up with a plan to ensure all students would have equitable access to learning opportunities. But in this age where almost everyone is giving lip service to equity, one pandemic unwittingly overexposed two others: poverty and digital access.

It is no secret that students who live in poverty would be disproportionately affected by the fallout from COVID-19. It was clear by the millions of jobs that were almost immediately lost that many families would have challenges meeting basic needs, like providing food. In a city like Baton Rouge, this is especially a concern as unemployment levels are already above the pre-pandemic national average at nearly six percent and the fact that nearly 81 percent of Capitol City students received free or reduced-price meals – an indicator of poverty. As a result, schools immediately put all hands on deck to help remedy food insecurity. By the end of March, many school sites were offering grab-and-go meals for people aged 18 and under. 

Schools – at almost breakneck speed – were able to quickly come up with a solution to feed students’ bellies. But what about their minds?

Feeding the mind has proved more difficult for Baton Rouge schools. In the immediate days following the school closures, educators in the city – like those across the nation – grappled with how best to make the shift to online instruction. However, that task has been daunting. Recent studies indicate that only 69 percent of Louisiana household have Internet access, making it very difficult to implement any sort of virtual learning. Nationally, nearly one in five students do not have computers or internet access, according to Pew Research Center. Conventional wisdom suggested that since many children don’t have a computer or internet access, district officials were unable to completely shift to online learning. Instead, district educators put together printed paper packets of instructional materials. The Digital Divide that advocates have been talking about for years became tangible in the wake of COVID-19. 

To provide a quick fix, the Federal Communications Commission rolled out a two-month plan to help. Broadband providers, like Cox and Spectrum, even rolled out low-cost and free WiFi options for 60 days. (What happens after two months is still a mystery.) One businessman even pledged to pay for broadband service for low-income families. By late March, 46 states had closed all schools and at least 54.8 million students were trying remote learning or not getting any instruction at all, according to Education Week.

By mid-April only about 40 of Louisiana’s 69 school districts offered some form of online education. Even now, East Baton Rouge’s complete shift to virtual education has only just occurred on May 4. Meanwhile some charter schools, such as Capitol High School, were able to completely transition to virtual learning by the middle of March. Yet, in two-months time, EBR Schools has gone from printing paper packets for families to passing out more than 4,000 Chromebooks to a full shift to online learning. Two months is a lifetime in education. Teachers already have trouble combating summer slide. But a two-month break during a global pandemic where all instruction must be done virtually? The task is challenging – especially when we don’t have the tools in place to address the existing issues.

Equity. 

That’s the word on the lips of almost every school administrator and district official. Districts say they have plans to ensure it. Nonprofit leaders say they help address it. Parents clamor for it. 

Students need it.

The reality?

It takes more than lip service to deliver on the promise of an education for all students. 

In October, the Urban League of Louisiana found ‘great disparities in student outcomes and access’ for students. Among other things, the report found:

  • High school students in Baton Rouge public schools perform at levels below the state average on the LEAP 2025;
  • As school poverty rates increase, the percentage of students who meet or exceed ACT benchmarks decreases;
  • Less than 50% of Hispanic students earn any form of diploma or credential; and
  • More than half (52%) of African American students enrolled in public schools in Baton Rouge attend “D” or “F” rated schools.

This is not news.

These are the same issues I wrote about when I was an education reporter. These are the same issues we discussed when I worked for the Louisiana Department of Education. And the same ones that were at play when I worked as an education policy analyst. Even now, in my current work, these are the same issues that are often pressing concerns. I was an education reporter 15 years ago – when I came into the role these issues were already decades old. 

But what are we doing about it?

Based on how things have unfolded in the past two months, it would seem like we’ve done much of nothing. In the days and weeks following the initial closures, much of the public discourse surrounded what to do with prom or how to handle graduation ceremonies. The gravity of the situation had yet to set in. All the while, we knew the issues outlined by the Urban League have persisted for decades and we knew that poor and minority students were more likely have challenges with a shift to digital learning. Yet, it took a global pandemic to have some level of reckoning about how dire the circumstances are for many of our students.

In all the talk about equity – both locally and nationally – those of us who have more privilege tend to create the same, tired narratives about inequity. The story we tell ourselves is that certain types of people who come from certain types of backgrounds are more or less likely to do or not do certain types of things. And then, to deal with the story we’ve created, us well-meaning and well-intentioned people unwittingly do everything in our power to perpetuate inequity, rather than to push for justice.

What has become painfully obvious in the past two months is that we are still too slow to implement real solutions relative to poverty and digital access. And, there are real solutions: 

  • First, as we inch towards school restarting in the fall, we have to reject a mindset that allows for online learning access for some, as opposed to ensuring it can happen for all. 
  • Second, we should use our voices to call on Congress to increase broadband access for all communities and to provide even more funding so that schools and libraries can provide technology devices and Internet hotspots to the people that need them. 
  • Lastly, we should ask more Internet service providers to lift data caps and to provide more low-cost broadband options to schools and families.

I have come to terms with the fact that many people do not want to live in an equitable society.

Some of us recoil against equity because we’re more comfortable with equality; equity requires that we do more for certain groups of people, and that doesn’t sit well with some folks. Some people do not want to fight for justice because it would mean we’d have to completely remove structures that benefit certain groups of people more and even make equity an issue. And some of us are just fine to live in the land of equality, while talking about equity without ever having to commit to any real action to live it out. Instead of action and solutions, we have long focused on studies and conversations. The endless reports and dialogues make us feel good. Without ever having to act on a solution, it makes us feel like we’re saving the day. And ultimately, we enjoy playing the role of savior because it always requires that there is someone to be saved. 

COVID19 has NOT destroyed our education system. Instead, it exposed who we really are.

Ashley Northington
Ashley Northington
Ashley Northington is award-winning marketing communication strategist, social policy leader, and entrepreneur. The founder of DENOR Brands + Public Relations, she leverages strategic communications as a tool to battle social inequities through the lenses of high-quality public education and entrepreneurship. A champion of stories that matter, Ashley lives to craft and tell meaningful narratives that influence public policy, programs, and partnerships. Learn more about her at AshleyNorthington.com.

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