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Experts: Inequities among public schools more pronounced during pandemic

Education experts discuss the ways the pandemic has deepened gaps in resources and achievement, and answer questions.

Educational inequities that existed in public schools before the pandemic have become more pronounced as the virus spreads.

That was the consensus of a panel of experts gathered Tuesday for a Newsday Live webinar titled "School & COVID-19: The Issues Distance Learning Exposed."

That panel included the state monitor for Hempstead Public Schools, Dr. William Johnson, Amina Kennedy, a secondary English teacher at the Robert Frost Middle School in Deer Park, and Ian Rosenblum, and executive director of The Education Trust-New York. They told the audience gathered for the webinar, moderated by Newsday editorial page columnist Lane Filler, that remote-learning and hybrid-learning mandates during the pandemic have exposed the digital divide in our educational systems between the haves and the have-nots.

Students in poorer districts, students of color, students learning English as a second language and those with disabilities and special needs, were already at a disadvantage on the learning curve before the pandemic shutdowns and now are even more so as they and their teachers struggle to keep pace with course curricula.

"Very, very simply it really gets down to resources," Johnson said, "and the ability to maximize those resources."

Or, as Rosenblum said: "Students who were underserved before — those at an economic disadvantage, people of color, disabilities — are the same students who are underserved during this pandemic." And across Long Island, and throughout New York, Rosenblum said, that gap has become even more apparent in 2020.

Issues include access to technology needed to remote-learn versus in-person, in-school education: a lack of home computers, and a lack of bandwidth needed to follow class lessons synchronously even when they do have computer access.

Further complicating the process, the experts said, is that often poorer students are in homes where their parents are working more than one job, they are working themselves or they have to deal with a stressful home environment.

And during the pandemic shutdowns those students no longer have direct interpersonal access to counselors, teachers and advisers to help them navigate.

"The majority of my students seem to be doing OK," Kennedy said. But, she said, just recently she had a student who suffered what she described as "a full-blown panic attack" about something going on during an in-person school lesson. "What if she had this at home?" Kennedy said. "Who would've been there to support her?"

As Kennedy said: "A lot of times school is a refuge for students struggling in their home lives and now they're trapped there all the time … Special Ed students, it's hard to give them the support they need when you're only seeing them through a screen, ESL [English as a Second Language] students, they are definitely missing an additional component [when they're learning] through remote … The number one thing missing is the socio-emotional support."

Additional social workers would help students deal with the realities of daily life, on top of school life, Kennedy said. "Where[as] if they [students] were in school they could go to guidance to take a breather, could talk to their favorite teacher or their coach."

Kennedy said as a result, teaching remotely four of the five school days a week, she begins lessons now with the basic question: How are you doing?

"If I had my druthers," Johnson said, "I'd rather have kids in school every day" — instead of remote learning.

But in many poorer or disadvantaged districts, like Hempstead, the panelists agreed that's often simply not possible.

Inadequate health care options or harsh economic realities mean even when in-person learning might be possible parents and guardians are opting against it. And in a district such as Hempstead, where many buildings are old and resources are slim, Johnson said administrators simply can't configure classrooms in ways necessary to make them safe for in-person learning. "There are issues here," Johnson said, "mainly dealing with resources, that make that virtually impossible."

The biggest hope, the panelists said, is that educators and administrators learn the lessons of the pandemic and make financial and educational adjustments needed to level the playing field.

"The pandemic did not create educational inequities," Rosenblum said.

But maybe, just maybe, he and his fellow panelists said, it might provide the road map needed to help fix them.

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