Office for Civil Rights details COVID’s 3 big equity impacts

Department of Education also issues new guidance on relief funding and launches equity summits
By: | June 9, 2021
American Rescue Plan and other COVID relief funds should help close some of the access and equity gaps widened by COVID, the Department of Education says in a new report.American Rescue Plan and other COVID relief funds should help close some of the access and equity gaps widened by COVID, the Department of Education says in a new report.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s disparate impacts on specific communities of students are highlighted in a new Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report that urges continued efforts to ensure equitable access and resources for students disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students,” prioritized the following issues for educators and policymakers to address as students return to full-time in-person instruction in fall 2021 and beyond:

  • Learning loss and widening achievement gaps
  • Disparities in access to learning materials and educational technology for students of color
  • Equitable participation by English learners in educational activities in and out of the classroom

The report came the same day that the department released new guidance describing how state and local educational agencies should meet new maintenance of equity requirements included in the ARP ESSER fund.

The agency also announced the launch of an Educational Equity Summit Series beginning June 22.

“This report bears witness to the many ways that COVID-19, with all of its tragic impacts on individuals, families, and communities, appears to be deepening divides in educational opportunity across our nation’s classrooms and campuses,” wrote Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Suzanne B. Goldberg.

“Although the pandemic’s effects will be studied for many years to come, we know from early studies that for many students, the educational gaps that existed before the pandemic—in access, opportunities, achievement, and outcomes—are widening,” Goldberg wrote.

3 key equity conclusions

Among the report’s findings are:

1. Learning loss and achievement gaps: The report found that instructional time dropped in most schools, with many in a “pandemic holding pattern” in March 2020 in which the focus was on reviewing learned skills and not introducing new skills. Instructional offerings rebounded during SY 2020-21, but minority students were less likely to have access to in-person learning opportunities.

In addition, the report cited a study that showed students’ average reading and math achievement levels were weeks behind in winter 2020, with gaps widening among students of color.

2. Access to learning resources and opportunities: The report found that students that had limited access to educational resources and opportunities prior to the pandemic saw those needs exacerbated during the pandemic. These students were more likely to face barriers due to technology and limited access to full-time in-person learning opportunities.

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Resources and opportunities were also limited by student and family access to physical and mental health resources during the pandemic, and the report said Black and Latinx families were more likely to have been affected by financial insecurity due to job loss or furlough, as well as illness, hospitalization, or death due to COVID-19.

3. English learner participation in online and in-person learning: The report found that EL students also faced pre-pandemic disparities in access to supports necessary for learning both English and other academic content, including reduced access to grade-level content, social stigma associated with being an EL, and limited support for home language development.

The effects of the pandemic on this group of students have been profound, according to the report. “In many cases, virtual learning effectively foreclosed opportunities for English learners to engage in English-language conversation with adults and with peers, receive intensive language instruction at frequent intervals, and encounter conversational and formal language in a range of social and academic contexts,” the authors wrote.

Additionally, their parents were less likely to be able to help during virtual learning.

‘Reimagine our schools’

The report’s authors call for investing American Rescue Plan Act funds in programs that will address these disparities, as well as continued conversations around new resources, such as proposed funding through the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, and supports for all students, including minorities, LGBTQ+, and those with disabilities.

“Our mission at the department is to safely reopen schools for in-person learning, dramatically increase investments in communities that for too long have been furthest from opportunity, and reimagine our schools so that all students have their needs met,” said Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in a statement announcing the report, guidance, and summit. “We must take bold action together to ensure our nation’s schools are defined not by disparities, but by equity and opportunity for all.”

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.