Public education has historically been framed as an equalizing force in American society, as many students and families rely on schools for necessities and opportunities for social mobility. COVID-19 brought into stark relief just how much schools serve as community hubs that provide families with much-needed resources.
Now, as the pandemic begins to ebb, some schools are grappling with the question of when and how to reopen. Proponents of prioritizing live instruction for all students point out that many students — particularly systemically marginalized children — experienced greater difficulty accessing necessities such as food and health care during the pandemic. Mental health concerns were also exacerbated amid school closures.
At the same time, these realities coexist with another, less comfortable truth: American educational institutions are a deep well of trauma and a central source of exposure to institutional racism, particularly for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students of color.
Long before the pandemic, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students were deeply affected by racism in education spaces through racial bias in student discipline, surveillance and policing associated with the school-to-prison-pipeline, and lack of access to high-quality teachers, curriculum, and gifted programs. Now, thanks to virtual instruction, students of color no longer have to go into a school building to be exposed to racial bias and academic violence. Instead, well-intentioned educators and schools can harm, police, and surveil these students and their families in the privacy of their homes. For example, a Black male student with ADHD was suspended for “bringing a facsimile of a firearm” to school, even though he was at home using a video conferencing platform for online instruction. Black students have consistently been disproportionately suspended and expelled at higher rates than their white counterparts, even during remote instruction.
So, while it is true that schools play a critical role in serving communities, it is also true that sending students of color back into those same environments without working to dismantle institutional racism can actively harm them. What does the American education system owe students of color? And what opportunities has the pandemic created to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive?
COVID-19 relief plans are a promising start. The American Rescue Plan Act is the latest of three federal relief funds, after the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, dedicated to education. With $123 billion allocated to K-12 schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, and $39 billion for higher education, ARP provides an opportunity for state education officials and school leaders to fundamentally reshape the U.S. education landscape in three key ways:
1. Direct federal funds to address inequities in K-12 school building conditions
Local education agencies should use ESSER funds to address operational needs, such as facility repairs to improve ventilation and school air quality. Researchers have long documented that inequities in school building conditions contribute to the environmental racism and health disparities communities of color experience (e.g., poor ventilation, higher rates of asthma). Due to racial inequities in housing and school funding, students of color disproportionately attend underfunded schools with poor building conditions that are located near sources of pollution, which can negatively impact their health and educational outcomes.
2. Fund mental health services to students of color
Students of color are disproportionately exposed to mental health risk factors such as racism, poverty, food insecurity, and lack of access to health care. These risk factors have only been heightened during the pandemic and are a pressing issue for Black students in particular. According to a report from the Congressional Black Caucus, suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black youth aged 15 to 19, and Black youth under age 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide than their white counterparts. Research also indicates that the rate of suicide death among Black youth is increasing faster than that of any other racial/ethnic group. ESSER funds provide a clear path forward to better support mental health services to students of color.
3. Upend the status quo
In addition to ESSER funds, the Biden administration has requested a $20 billion increase in its FY2022 budget to invest in grants for Title I schools, promoting equity more broadly. Given the deep history of inequitable funding and spending in K-12 education, states should channel broad applicability into targeted funds for underserved communities of color. If states revert to the status quo funding dissemination mechanisms, or focus spending on the urgency of the present without regard for the broader socio-historical context of educational inequity, they will waste this once-in-a-lifetime chance to ensure that our public education system equitably serves all students.
We have a unique opportunity to right inestimable wrongs by using ARP, CRRSA, and CARES Act funds to reimagine education and center voices of the systemically marginalized. These voices hold a wealth of knowledge about what they need to thrive and how to eliminate educational inequity. Will we listen?
We’ve been working closely with federally funded research and technical assistance centers to identify best practices and strategies to promote racial equity in education throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Keep an eye out for additional publications on this topic from Bellwether and the National Comprehensive Center’s Capacity Building Team.
Ebony Lambert, Ph.D., is a senior analyst at Bellwether Education Partners, where her work integrates education, psychology, and health into research, evaluation, and capacity-building. She holds a doctorate in health psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University.