By Cardell Orrin (Stand for the Children) and Kelsey Jirikils (Freedom Preparatory Academy).
From the 2021 edition of the Hooks Policy Papers. “Race in the Time of COVID-19.
During a planning period in 2019, I heard school administrators discussing a 7th grader who was exhibiting early signs of a seizure. With no nurse or medical professional, the principal subbed for algebra while the algebra teacher, who fortunately happened to have EMT training, monitored the student. Luckily, the student was fine, but this experience highlighted a glaring issue: our school wasn’t equipped to give students the care they needed.
One of the authors worked at a Title 1 School in Memphis whose student population consisted of over 90% students of color and over 90% low-income students. From school segregation through the 1960s, to White flight in the 1970s, to district secession in 2014, racial disparities existed in Memphis long before COVID-19 (Kiel, 2008). However, the pandemic highlighted that many of the issues in Memphis schools that disproportionately affect students of color can be solved when people in positions of power decide to prioritize them.
Access to technology was an issue in Memphis before the pandemic. In 2019, all six of the municipal districts, which primarily served White students, had either fully implemented or were in the process of implementing a 1:1 initiative (1 device for every student) (Pignolet, 2019). Shelby County Schools (SCS), which primarily serves students of color, lagged behind. While Superintendent Ray proposed a 1:1 initiative soon after he became superintendent, there was not enough support for the proposal to pass with the required funding. As of the fall of 2019, the district had settled on piloting a 1:1 initiative in only nine high schools and making plans to phase the initiative to other schools over six years (Pignolet, 2019). Compared to their White peers, students in SCS were years behind in having access to technology and in learning critical computer skills that would prepare them for post-secondary success.
The pandemic pushed SCS to accelerate their timeline and pushed us as a community to reconsider what was possible. By August of 2020, SCS brokered deals with HP and Microsoft to secure tablets and laptops for Pre-K through 12th graders. These deals were made possible through an influx of money from the CARES Act and other federal funds, the City of Memphis, and other revenue streams identified by Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration (Jaglois, 2020). Of particular note is the five million dollars invested by the City of Memphis. The City relinquished responsibility for funding education in the 2014 fiscal year when their court-ordered mandate was removed with the historic merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools (Powell, 2021). While suburban municipalities have significantly increased their direct contributions to education, Memphis is now the only city in Shelby County that does not contribute to K-12 education (Powell, 2021). COVID didn’t create the funding disparity between Memphis and other municipalities; rather, COVID showed us that disparity is a choice. COVID showed us that if the city to invest in public education, then the city can make it happen.
Furthermore, COVID highlighted that education is a community issue. Prior to COVID, teachers were an easy scapegoat for all things wrong in education. COVID showed us that, even if a teacher was doing everything right, if the student and their family didn’t have access to stable housing, food, health care, affordable childcare, and a livable income, we can’t expect learning to happen at its highest level. Due to historic inequities, many low-income families and families of color felt the brunt of the economic downturn and were thus faced with unemployment and housing insecurity (Mitropoulos, 2021). This may have caused some students to start taking on adult responsibilities such as entering the workforce to provide for their families or caring for younger siblings in near fulltime capacities (Mitropoulos, 2021). On top of this, many were dealing with pandemic-related isolation and grief without the support of mental health care. These factors manifested in a substantial rise in chronic absence during the pandemic, particularly for students of color (Mitropoulos, 2021).
It is naive for us to think that a student can come to school and be fully successful while dealing with food insecurity, or working for 20+ hours a week out of necessity, or watching their parents stress about finding work and affordable housing. If we care about the children in our community getting a quality education, then we need to create conditions that ensure each student can be physically and mentally present to receive an education. That means making housing security a priority, making childcare affordable, making sure single parents can support their families without children needing to work to make household ends meet. COVID showed us, in an intensified state, that when we ignore the interconnectedness of these issues, we do a disservice to children, families, and our community’s future. The COVID pandemic has also shown us that when we put our collective commitment and resources (local, state, and federal) towards addressing challenging situations, we can identify solutions and put them in place.
The pandemic has laid bare that as a society, we have been failing to support the holistic needs of our students, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students of color. In the classroom, we were allowing young people with the greatest needs to fall behind their peers in access to technology, mental health supports, and resources to support their academic achievement. Outside the classroom, we were failing to establish systems to support their families with access to housing, food, and extended financial resources. COVID didn’t cause these issues, but the pandemic has made them more apparent. During this pandemic, we have identified resources to support student education, mental health, housing, food access, and financial payments for families. It has been made readily clear that if we want to effect change, we can make that happen and the only thing stopping us is the will and courage.
The pandemic has laid bare that as a society, we have been failing to support the holistic needs of our students, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and students of color. While ambitious and requiring national and local support, the following policy recommendations would alleviate the crisis children and families face:
- A guaranteed minimum income for poor families which would help address housing and food insecurities; Universal health care for children and adults;
- Increase equitable funding to schools with the purpose of improving compensation to attract and retain more highly qualified educators and support staff within schools, along with resources targeted to literacy, social-emotional supports, and high school success.
- Expand community schools that identify needs and connect students and their families to the resources and opportunities that will support them to thrive in education and life. This includes the recognition that these are not just school and district responsibilities and should involve investments and resources from local, state, and federal governments and agencies.
- Permanent funding to bridge the ongoing digital divide for under-resourced families that will continue in the future even after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Kiel, D. (2008). Exploded dream: Desegregation in the Memphis City Schools, Law & Ineq., 26, 261-303. Pignolet, J. (2019, March 21). SCS wants to give every student a laptop to take home, but that may present
- challenges of its own. Memphis Commercial Appeal. Retrieved from https://www.commercialappeal.com/
- story/news/education/2019/03/21/laptops-shelby-county-schools-students-risks-research/3032466002/ Jaglois, J. (2020, August 3). The Investigators: Breaking down the cost of bridging Shelby County’s digital
- divide. Action News 5 [Memphis]. Retrieved from https://www.actionnews5.com/2020/08/03/ investigators-breaking-down-cost-bridging-shelby-countys-digital-divide/Powell, M. (2021, June
15. Memphis’ budget needs to redirect funds to empower and uplift our students. Memphis Commercial Appeal. Retrieved from https://www.commercialappeal.com/story/opinion/2021/06/15/disinvesting- education-hurts-memphis-students-and-families/7698480002/
- Mitropoulos, A. (2021, March 21). Thousands of students reported ‘missing’ from school systems nationwide amid COVID-19 pandemic. ABC News, Retrieved from https://abcnews.go.com/US/thousands-students-r eported-missing-school-systems-nationwide-amid/story?id=76063922
Watch the lecture on “Race and COVID-19: Illuminating Inequities in Education” on our YouTube page.