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Panel: Lower-income students face more challenges during pandemic's online learning

Monique Darrisaw-Akil, assistant superintendent of secondary education with

Monique Darrisaw-Akil, assistant superintendent of secondary education with the Brentwood school district. Credit: Brentwood Union Free School District

Lower-income students face significant obstacles that pupils in higher-wealth districts do not encounter in getting a quality education during the pandemic, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

"For all of us, transitioning to online learning and everything that COVID brought to us was a huge, huge challenge. But particularly for low-wealth districts, such as mine, it was a greater challenge," said Monique Darrisaw-Akil, assistant superintendent of secondary education with the Brentwood School District.

Darrisaw-Akil was one of several educators and education advocates who spoke during an online panel Tuesday night dubbed "Equity During the Pandemic." The online discussion was hosted by the State of Black Long Island Equity Council, a subgroup of the Urban League of Long Island.

Discussion topics hit on issues in instruction ranging from the kindergarten level through college.

Darrisaw-Akil said in Brentwood, a school system that serves 19,000 students, administrators had to immediately get into bidding wars to secure computers for their students. District officials soon learned many of their students did not have Wi-Fi capabilities at home, or sometimes, if students had access to a computer or tablet, it was shared with other family members.

"We still don’t have devices in every child’s hand," she said. "When you think about equity, how do these children who have been writing essays on their cellphone or sharing a device with their parent, how do they opt in to the learning environment the same as other students who didn’t have to consider whether there would be a device available?"

Monique Powell, a former educator who now is the director of community development for Long Beach, said when the pandemic hit, certain families lost the safe environment school provided their children.

"It was child care. It was nourishment. It was socialization," she said. "What the pandemic did was take that away."

Powell said, without providing specifics, a program was created in which families could feel safe to ask for help with child care.

Jarvis Watson, assistant dean for student support services at Stony Brook University, said online instruction has robbed some students of the campus experience. He said one student told him, "I lost the student in me because I feel like I’m learning through rectangles and squares, as opposed to having had that true college experience."

Dia Bryant, deputy director and chief partnership officer at The Education Trust New York based in Manhattan, said a recent survey by the organization found that 60% of Black families are relying on remote learning during the health crisis.

She said families are navigating a new system that has not been properly defined or adequately informed parents with answers like is their child performing at grade level? And what does it mean for a student to be engaged during online courses?

Bryant said the onus is on the state to secure necessary data to help guide improvements in online teaching.

"We need oversight and clear guidance from the state on what remote learning should be. Period," Bryant said. "We need some data."

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