COVID-19 & Racial Equity: A National Reckoning in Public Education

Aug 17, 2020


Turning a Moment into a Movement

At this year’s National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) 2020 Virtual Convention, CZI participated in a candid conversation about the unique challenges this school year will present for Black and Latinx students, their parents, and their teachers. NBC News education correspondent, Rehema Ellis, moderated the discussion that included educators, parents, researchers and other experts about how COVID-19 is exacerbating racial inequity in education and how we can best meet the needs of Black and Latinx students in the new school year.

Supporting Students’ Well-being

The conversation began with the urgent question of whether students should return to classrooms in the fall. Cynthia Robinson-Rivers, the Founder & Head of School at Van Ness Elementary in Washington, DC., said the answer would largely depend on local health conditions, but also emphasized the importance of supporting students’ emotional well-being. “It’s really critical for our students who are furthest from opportunity, who had the most difficulty engaging in distance learning,” she said.

We have to be family- and caregiver-facing as much as we are student-facing

In remote and hybrid learning environments, Robinson-Rivers shared that schools need to make sure families get the resources they need—including coaching and help with video conferencing. “We have to be family- and caregiver-facing as much as we are student-facing,” Robinson-Rivers said, “so we can support families in supporting their child.”

Beyond acute disparities, the aftermath of COVID-19 points to several major areas of growth for the education system, from integrating social-emotional learning to regulating disciplinary practices.

The School to Prison Pipeline

Pulling from her experience with Chicago schools, Phyllis Lockett, Founder & CEO of LEAP Innovations, highlighted how empowering students to “co-design their learning experience,” has set them up to succeed in remote learning environments. She noted that schools where students engage in self-directed learning have been more resilient in the wake of COVID-19 than schools that stick to the status-quo, one-size-fits-all approach.

...schools where students engage in self-directed learning have been more resilient in the wake of COVID-19 than schools that stick to the status-quo, one-size-fits-all approach.

That same one-size-fits-all approach to teaching, the panelists agreed, is a trademark of the school-to-prison pipeline. As Lockett put it, schools should “elevate a student because of their differences, not penalize them because of their differences.” Robinson-Rivers added that educators should view misbehavior as a form of communication from a student—and an opportunity to teach, not to punish.

When asked why education has been slow to change, Travis J. Bristol, a professor at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education, noted that the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education didn’t stipulate any clear timeline. Instead, it ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” Sixty-six years later, many people are still waiting for a sense of urgency to set in.

For Bristol, the main reason that so many schools are failing to create the conditions for equal opportunity is age-old: “Because there is this belief that Black people are not equal.”

John B. King, Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education and CEO of The Education Trust, agreed. As a longtime policymaker, he saw firsthand how, “in many ways… people are most interested in their own kids, and often are not as committed to other people’s children,” he said. “This really is a question of: Are we willing to invest in everyone’s education?”

Keri Rodrigues, Founding President of the National Parents Union, mobilizes parents to do just that—and she agreed that for generations, certain kinds of problems in public education have disproportionately hurt certain kinds of people. When she was a student, for instance, Rodrigues was expelled from her school. Years later, her oldest son was suspended from kindergarten 36 times. “The cycle continues,” she said.

Bristol shared that his son was suspended at a young age, as well. “This wasn’t only happening to me and my Black boy,” said Bristol. “This was happening across the United States, starting as early as preschool.”

Why Representation Matters

While there’s no easy fix for systemic inequities, the panelists identified how important it is to recruit and retain teachers of color. Professor Bristol and Secretary King explained how teachers of color create the conditions for Black and Latinx student success, as well as offer all students a more diverse understanding of history and literature. What’s more, the benefits of diversity in education extend far beyond the school grounds. “It is important for democracy to have diverse representation,” said Bristol. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

Rodrigues called on journalists to cover these issues, “asking deep questions and tracking disproportionality on all levels”—from virus exposure to disparities in disciplinary response when kids break social distancing rules.

Looking ahead, the panelists saw some hope for the coming years. “COVID-19, coupled with this moment of national reckoning around racial justice, creates an opportunity,” said Secretary King. “And the opportunity is to hold people to their pledges of solidarity.”

“We cannot give up hope,” said Rodrigues. “We’re not going to be invited to the table, but we’re coming.”


Additional Resources

To learn more about the issues discussed in the panel, see the wide range of resources from the panelists on advancing equity in public education below: 

  • In an op-ed for The Hechinger Report, Phyllis Lockett describes how the inflexibility of our education system has made it more difficult for teachers to meet their students’ needs during the pandemic. She calls for a redesign that centers on student agency and self-directed learning experiences. 
  • A case study released by Van Ness Elementary—the school led by Cynthia Robinson-Rivers—explores how the parents, teachers, and administrators have worked together to create an educational experience that engages the whole child
  • In an interview with Forbes, Robinson-Rivers discussed the value of diversity in leadership, the importance of community relationships, and how to meet the needs of students, families, and staff during COVID-19.
  • Professor Travis Bristol was recently interviewed by NPR about his research on the impact of teacher diversity and training. Read more about Bristol’s research in his paper, “The Added Value of Latinx and Black Teachers for Latinx and Black Students.” 
  • Secretary John B. King’s organization, The Education Trust, has partnered with 13 other organizations to share recommendations for an equity-focused response to COVID-19. Topics include fiscal policy, emotional well-being, and the “homework gap” created by lack of home internet access.
  • Keri Rodrigues’ organization, the National Parents Union, has surveyed the parents of K-12 public-school students during the pandemic. This report highlights key findings.

CZI Resources

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, CZI has committed more than $9 million to support teachers and students impacted by school closures. This includes grants committing $1 million to help bridge the digital divide in California and a  $1.2 million grant to DonorsChoose to help thousands of teachers lead distance learning from home, and get necessary supplies to their students. In June, CZI also announced grants to five community-based organizations to partner with students, teachers, and families on projects that are race equity-centered, and that build strong connections and relationships.