This episode is brought to you in part by Austill’s Educational Therapy Services and Edgenuity.
It’s important that we recognize that the equity gaps are not just seen in our education system, it’s seen in our employment, economic, housing, healthcare, and environmental systems as well.
This whole experience has definitely shifted and I think caused I would call a community trauma that everyone’s experiencing and issues of fear, anxiety, the increasing isolation has definitely led to a lot of mental health concerns for everyone.
Some schools had the opportunity and the resources to provide digital learning, resources, tools and training to their students, teachers and parents, while other districts did not have the economic or the technological infrastructure and resources to do so.
One of our other problems is that we’re still stuck viewing our educational system through an equality lens instead of an equity lens.
I think schools stand as the center of the community. They’re not just in charge of and responsible for the education of students, but they also reach out to multiple different other systems.
My advice to districts after this is over when you have the time to breathe, conduct an equity audit.
I think districts recognize that equity is playing front and center here. They’re really are seeing that our kids cannot learn if we don’t really deal with the inequitable root issues that were of access to basic needs, access to technology, access to digital learning.
I think we’re going to see opportunity achievement gaps widen because of the fact that some students don’t have access to the resources needed to be able to engage effectively and adequately with digital learning.
We have a tendency to move quickly in times of crisis, but then as time moves on, we forget and we go back to the status quo and we cannot go back to the status quo here. We really have to dig deep here and recognize that this is an opportunity to actually re-shift a system.
Equity is not just a topic and has to be the foundation that lifts up every aspect of the educational experience for students, staff and community members and of course our board directors.
Annette Stevenson: Great. Thanks so much for joining us to talk about this. We certainly have talked about equity in other ways before this outbreak has occurred, but it’s very clear to see that this is no small impact to the equity or student inequity conversation. So, let’s start by looking at how has the current COVID-19 pandemic and the precautionary measures such as closed schools, closed businesses, impacted the existing inequities that K-12 students are regularly faced with?
Dr. Heather Bennett: Well, that’s a big question.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, I know.
Dr. Heather Bennett: I think it’s really important to understand that COVID-19 as a virus does not discriminate on its face, but it does serve and act as an inequity bomb or an inequity accelerant, throwing gasoline on an already explosive fire, that regarding the deep inequities that we already see in our educational system already. So it’s important that we recognize that the equity gaps are not just seen in our education system, it’s seen in our employment, economic, housing, healthcare, and environmental systems as well. And so we know that these gaps existed well before the pandemic, but unfortunately I think we’re going to see that they’re only going to widen. Again, that’s what I meant by an equity accelerant over the course of the pandemic and beyond. And it’s important to recognize that even though this is impacting everyone in all of society that is disproportionately impacting certain groups that are already at risk prior to the pandemic. We’re talking about economically disadvantaged students, English learners, students with disabilities, students who’ve experienced trauma and mental health, immigrant students, LGBTQ students, students of color and those who are living in rural communities who don’t have access to certain resources such as healthcare and internet connectivity.
So in terms of issues, hopefully I gave you a nice little roundabout explanation of that. But in terms of issues, we’re seeing increased discrimination of Asian students and families. They’re experiencing higher rates of racist attacks verbally, physically and online because of the fact that the pandemic, we know, was first discovered in Wuhan, China. We’re experiencing a whole lot of racism on behalf of Asian Americans on behalf of that. We’re talking about access to digital learning and instruction, is a huge issue as well. We have a disparate, inequitable educational gap when it comes to access to devices, access to internet connectivity – meaning high speed broadband internet connectivity, and, of course, access to instruction for teachers to be able to utilize the device and to teach online.
Also, the choice of instruction – how are we educating our most vulnerable learners such as English learners, economically disadvantaged learners and of course students with disabilities. We’re talking about access to basic needs, food, housing, transportation, healthcare. We’re talking about issues of trauma and mental health, not just for students but also for parents and communities and also teachers. This whole experience has definitely shifted and I think caused, I would call, a community trauma that everyone’s experiencing. Issues of fear, anxiety, the increasing isolation has definitely led to a lot of mental health concerns for everyone. Again, lack of effective communication about COVID-19. I mean we’re hearing a thousand different things from our federal government, to our state, to our local government. Then also anything we find on our social media sites. Also, the fact is, is the important information getting out to our most vulnerable families? Families who English is not their first language. Language is important.
Also, internet connectivity is important here. Again, we are more isolated, we can’t actually go to the places to get the information like we used to. If we’re talking about families who don’t have access to high speed broadband internet, they’re not getting the information as quickly as others. Especially if all that information is on the school website. I mean there’s other [issues] like family community engagement, how are they engaged, dealing with issues of employment, loss of jobs. [It’s] not just the financial stress happening in our homes across the country and across Pennsylvania, [it’s also] the fact that essential workers have no choice but to work and risk getting the virus. So that emotional stress is also impacting our students and our families. There’re a thousand issues but those are the ones I would say are the big issues. But all of them also have smaller, distinct, very nuanced issues as well. And again, these issues are not new, they’re just been exasperated and exposed through COVID-19.
Annette Stevenson: That leads into what I was curious about next is, do you feel like it takes something this major to ultimately fully peel back the layers or reveal all of the inequities or at least the ones that we’re centered around in this conversation that exists in the student and the community populous? Does it take something like this to actually expose it fully?
Dr. Heather Bennett: It shouldn’t, but unfortunately, I think how we’ve operated, our systems operate in a space of reaction, reactionary mindsets more than a preemptive mindset. I think most districts and schools recognized the inequities well before COVID-19. Actually, we’re developing programs and policies to deal with some of these inequities. However, these are systemic, deep rooted inequities that will take a complete transformation and paradigm shift in how we view and value our students and communities, and, also, how we resource our communities.
For example, we’ve always known that digital learning was an important thing before the pandemic – everyone understood, there’s been so many research and articles and state grants that have talked about the importance of digital equity and digital learning. However, due to inequitable funding and resources rooted sometimes in systemic racism, classism, and also the fact that we have the lack of resources to build the infrastructure for some of these digital learning classrooms [because of] internet connectivity.
Some schools had the opportunity and the resources to provide digital learning, resources, tools and training to their students, teachers and parents, while other districts did not have the economic or the technological infrastructure and resources to do so. So like I said, it’s deep, these are deep rooted issues, people have thought about them before, but we really are dealing with the resource gap big time that have led these inequities to continue and also to exasperate. We see this dynamic big time in our urban and rural communities and districts. So when we went to remote learning, and I don’t want to go in too deep, but when went to remote learning, digital learning was the way to provide instruction, but not everyone has had access to the things that they need to be able to provide that instruction. While other districts have had so much time prior to the pandemic to actually develop the resources and the tools to do it effectively. This is why we’re seeing this really big gap and again, I believe that it’s only going to widen because of the nature of how this pandemic has ravaged our system.
I think we are still stuck. One of our other problems is that we’re still stuck viewing our educational system through an equality lens instead of an equity lens. We haven’t recognized that our kids require different supports and may need more resources to provide them with a quality education. This requires districts to really assess their gaps, to really look and do a deep dive at their systems and structures. I mean, I’m talking about their policies, talking about how they engage families and communities, talking about how they think about their own resources and prioritizing resources, how they educate their teachers and staff. I think that can go a long way to really trying to figure out a plan and action to mitigate some of these inequities because without that it’s going to be very hard to address it effectively.
Annette Stevenson: I think, some of what at least that I’ve seen, and you may be more keenly aware of this, but the communities, it’s clear through this whole thing how integrated the community is with the school system. It’s really not a separate thing, the community and then the school system. They’re really so integrated and reliant, right? The community, I think what we’ve seen is communities are reliant on, to some degree, the public schools, especially in some communities, as you’ve said, for information that gets passed out through the students. And just the reliance there I think I’m seeing that more and more, especially through some of the stories that are coming out of the districts in the ways that they’re supporting the communities presently. So how do you think that school districts, working with these challenging parameters that are necessary, right? So due to the risks, health risks surrounding coronavirus, how can the school districts address some of the gaps and continue to support the students who are the more susceptible or the more vulnerable? How can they continue that equity work in these current circumstances?
Dr. Heather Bennett: I think you’ve made an amazing point there. I think schools stand as the center of the community. They’re not just in charge of and responsible for the education of students, but they also reach out to multiple different other systems, like the healthcare system, employment system, the environmental issues and concerns of the system, we’re talking about economic system. So the school district itself I think serves as a focal point of the community. And what we’ve seen is that they’re providing safety, wellness, nutrition, technology needs for students and families in this situation. They were always doing so beforehand. I think schools have a really important role to play, but also that if it’s done correctly, can actually heal a community as well. I think one of the first things that I would advise to continue this work is they really need to talk to and include the voices of their students, parents and communities into any type of planning moving forward.
I know continuity educational plans went out, but any type of actual planning moving forward has to include these voices. Cultural responsive practices really focus on and affirm the diverse voices and experiences of students, families and the communities and how each community is experiencing this virus and this pandemic in very divergent and disparate ways. It is so important that their voices are heard to be able to really understand the gaps, understand the disparity gaps, understanding inequity gaps that are impacting their district as a whole. It’s really important to see it from different viewpoints and to really reach out and create really a task force of these voices. So that they can actually start to make practices to really heal and mitigate the impact of this, of the pandemic, but not just the pandemic, but even before the pandemic.
I say they need to embed equity into their district practices. I’m thinking about, they have to evaluate their policies and practices through an equity lens. Again, I think the most important element is to get out of this equality lens framework and move into an equity lens framework and what does that mean? And so that actually means really thinking about how our policies are structured and also what do they mean and whether they can actually cause more harm if we don’t really think about addressing how different persons and different peoples and populations and groups in your district are experiencing their education. They need to really obtain data. I think data collection is probably one of the first things they need to do and really assessing what did they learn from the pandemic? And I know that some districts are moving in rapid pace and they’re trying to mitigate, really trying to provide for their kids as fast as possible. Really the basic needs space.
But what did they learn from this pandemic? What gaps do they have in practice? I think that is going to be an extremely introspective, important role that they need to do. And my advice to districts after this is over when you have the time to breathe, conduct an equity audit. Also, professional development I think is important, professional development for teachers and parents on digital learning, social emotional learning, cultural responsive practices. Really what is equity but also professional development, how to utilize some of these new technologies and devices or resources that you now have to embed into your educational practice because of the pandemic. Those how tos, how do you deal with this? How do you change, how do you shift? These are professional development and training opportunities that I think are extremely important. And then of course you’ve got to develop a plan. In this case more than ever, you have to have a plan how to move forward.
I think the previous comments that I made before all will help develop a plan that it should be comprehensive to really dealing with the achievement and opportunity gaps that we’re going to see come out of this pandemic. So, I mean I probably have a thousand other thoughts, but these are the big ones in my head.
Annette Stevenson: Yeah, you’re touching on the big ones, and I know you’re going to be working on some additional resources coming up here and already are. So you talked about the data collection coming out of this. So let’s talk about what this looks like as an outcome. What do you believe will be the outcome coming out of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak? In other words, more specifically, how will things have changed for students who prior to the outbreak were already struggling in some of these areas that we talked about? How will things have changed? What’s that going to look like for them coming back to the school buildings and back into the more traditional or what we’re accustomed to as the traditional learning environment?
Dr. Heather Bennett: I think what we’re going to see is a re-imagining. What I hope that we’re going to see is a re-imagining of educational practices and structures. Because of the pandemic, because of the rapid fire of the pandemic, I mean, schools really had to adapt quickly. I mean within days, to provide resources and to provide instruction for students. I find that very exciting moving forward because of the fact that I think districts recognize that equity is playing front and center here. They really are seeing that our kids cannot learn if we don’t really deal with the inequitable root issues that were of access to basic needs, access to technology, access to digital learning. I think our districts are recognizing that and they’re also recognizing that they can be very flexible and creative in the way instruction is done. That is something really exciting and so what my hope is that our students are going to come in and they’re going to come in with a lot of issues.
I think we’ll have more children who are going to be [in] levels of poverty, it’s going to be a huge conversation, because a lot of families lost their jobs during the midst of this pandemic. And we have no idea what moratoriums are going to look like in terms of rent or mortgage or housing, utilities. And so they’re going to have to figure out ways to pay all of those things off after the end of the pandemic as well. So I think we’re going to have a lot more children who are needing a lot of resources and basic resources. I feel like we’re going to have a lot more teachers, students and parents who are going to have issues with trauma and mental health. I think that’s going to be a huge element, an issue as well.
And I think another element that I think we’re going to see is, we’re going to see extreme achievement, we’re going to see opportunity achievement gaps widen because of the fact that some students don’t have access to the resources needed to be able to engage effectively and adequately with digital learning. Also schools in districts are doing it very differently, so it depends on the district that you’re in. And so I think we’re going to see a lot of achievement opportunity gaps within schools, within districts, but we’re also going to see it between districts as well in Pennsylvania. So that’s what they’re going to walk into. But at the same time I say that there are positive elements of the fact that again, I think our districts are recognizing how equity is playing in this. And two, I think they recognize that they have to be very flexible and they have to be very creative in how they are administering instruction and education and supporting students.
And the third piece, again, is I think they’re going to really focus in on a lot of trauma and emotional health of students and families and communities. Because we know if kids don’t feel safe, if they don’t feel like they belong, they’re not going to learn any way. So I think those three elements are going to be something that we’re going to see a lot more on our educational practices and plans across the commonwealth and also across the country.
Annette Stevenson: You talked about how in this space there’s a lot of reactionary things that occur. Do you think that with these gaps is also going to then maybe follow with the reactions and hopefully there is supports and assistance that comes into place because of these inequities that are revealed? Do you foresee that occurring?
Dr. Heather Bennett: I hope so. I mean.
Annette Stevenson: I know it’s hard to say, but.
Dr. Heather Bennett: I’m an optimist, I wouldn’t be doing the job if I wasn’t, but we also know that we have a tendency to move quickly in times of crisis, but then as time moves on, we forget and we go back to the status quo and we cannot go back to the status quo here. We really have to dig deep here and recognize that this is an opportunity to actually reshift a system that was actually harming kids to begin with. So how do we do that? And so my hope is that districts will now recognize that they have to have these plans in place. Again, I don’t think anyone really thought back in, even when we recognize that COVID-19 was a possibility even in January, early February that this was actually going to go the way it has gone. And so I think districts are now going to have to really think critically and again creatively of how education and structure could continue in the midst of crisis. But not just in the midst of crisis, they also need to think about in the midst when there is not a crisis.
How do we really support kids effectively in our educational system? I think that is a question that they’re going to be really grappling with and I think hopefully they’re going to put things in place to make sure that their teachers are trained, their parents are trained and their students have the necessary resources to be able to learn effectively whether they’re at home or whether they’re in the classroom. So that’s my hope. And again, I really want and hope that they recognize that equity is not just a topic and has to be the foundation that lifts up every aspect of the educational experience for students, staff and community members and of course our board directors. It has to stay in that vein or we’re going to lose our students in the process. And I think districts are recognizing this more than ever because of what’s happening with COVID-19.
And I hope that they recognize that they have to put it at the top of their agendas and not think of equity as a, maybe we’ll talk about it here. No, it has to be the main foundation, has to be the main keystone to be able to create an effective educational system that’s going to work for all other kids.
Annette Stevenson: So clearly there’s more to cover and talk about in this space. I know you’re working on a ton of resources and you’re working with school districts during workshops and you’ve got webinars going on. We’re going to look for ways to make sure we get the word out on all of those elements coming forward here. Thanks for joining us today on this episode and giving us a high level overview and we look forward more to come from you.
Dr. Heather Bennett: Thank you for having me.