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Opinion: The coronavirus is magnifying the equity gaps between Colorado students

Equity in schools is defined as equal opportunity to access the resources needed for successful student learning, and it is the responsibility of public schools to ensure that access.

As a result of an unprecedented disruption to schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, issues of equity and access are being revealed to the public — making national and local headlines.

Erin Anderson

Responses to inequities are at the forefront of district and school leaders plans for remote learning. My hope is that this focus on equity doesn’t end when we return to our school buildings.

Although there are many equity issues schools need to consider right now, such as access to special services through special education, there are longstanding equity issues brought to light by COVID-19.

Summer learning loss

Research has found that families with more money and parental flexibility have always weathered breaks in schooling better than families with fewer resources for supporting learning.

This gap in learning is referred to as summer learning loss. Each year when students are off school for several months, students with more resources are better situated to maintain the learning from the school year through enrichment activities, greater access to books and other learning tools, and family available to supervise learning.

Remote learning will result in similar learning losses, meaning that students with greater access to resources, such as enrichment activities, are likely to maintain learning differently than those students who may not have access to computer, printers and adults to help them make sense of their school work. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Digital divide

Another concern discussed in the research on equity and access to public education is referred to as the digital divide. Colorado legislators have identified this problem and have been working toward 100% broadband access throughout the state, especially in rural communities.

Currently, however, broadband access is not available to all families in the state. Even if broadband access is available, internet services can prove to be too expensive for many families, averaging around $100 a month throughout Colorado.

The final hurdle in the digital divide is access to devices that can operate online learning programs like Google classroom and Schoolology, assuming those platforms are able to handle the increase in usage.

Although we often think about access to technology as a rural issue, it is estimated that nearly 20,000 students in Denver Public Schools don’t have both broadband internet access and a device that supports remote learning. 

Many internet providers have risen to the occasion, providing free internet and mobile hot spots to students and their families, which is helpful during this period of remote learning, but what will be the solution in the long run?

Although larger districts, like Denver Public Schools, had previously initiated programs to offset that cost for families in need, those options may not exist throughout the state.

How much of school work and homework, assigned during normal school circumstances, require access to the internet or is much easier to do with access to technology?

People today turn to technology platforms like YouTube to teach themselves how to build houses, calculate statistics and perfect dance moves. Students with this access will be at an advantage when engaging in learning.

Food insecurity

In addition to learning supports, the coronavirus has helped reveal the number of students and families facing food insecurity on a daily basis. One of the first things local superintendents had to figure out was how to continue providing breakfast and lunch to students who otherwise would not eat.

Many students are food insecure and live in food deserts. Local school districts may have up to 90% of students eligible for free or reduced cost lunch. The high number of students who depend on school for one or more meals per day is concerning and needs to be part of a large conversation about income inequality. 

Homelessness

Another concern that this transition to remote learning has heightened is the number of students who are considered homeless in the state of Colorado. One small local district, Sheridan Public Schools, estimates about 25% of students are homeless.

Their approach to remote learning required the district to send out buses into the local communities to hand out food and packets of school work since they couldn’t depend on communicating with all of their students at home. 

The students impacted by summer learning loss, the digital divide, food insecurity and homelessness will still be at our schools in the fall. Although remote learning does exacerbate these inequities, these issues still impact student success when schools are operating on normal schedules.

Let’s move into the future with an unwavering commitment to equity and a commitment to addressing the issues remote learning has helped to reveal. 

Erin Anderson is an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver.

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