Pandemic said to widen already existing racial disparities in Louisiana schools

Poor students even more likely to suffer learning loss

Paul Habans Charter School in New Orleans handed out supplies including food, books and computers to students and the community when Louisiana schools closed because of the spread of coronavirus. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

The COVID-19 pandemic has noticeably widened the educational gap between white students and Black and Hispanic students, a new study says. In a scenario that assumes a “virus resurgence” where in-school instruction does not fully resume before January 2021, research firm McKinsey & Co. estimates that Hispanic students will have experienced more than nine months of learning loss and Black students more than 10 months. White students will experience loss, too, but their six months lost would be significantly less than their Black and Hispanic counterparts.

When McKinsey & Co. ran the scame scenario for low-income students across the racial spectrum, they estimated 12.4 months of learning lost. 

“Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment,” the firm reports, “such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share (and) high-speed internet.” Because poor parents are more likely to have to physically report to work and higher-income parents are more likely to be able to work from home, the resulting gap in “parental academic supervision” also disadvantages students from poorer households.

Researchers say a lack of access to resources is another reason Black students and other students of color are more likely to fall behind during the pandemic.

Eric Lewis, former state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a former leader of a Baton Rouge charter school, says a lot of work has to be done to make sure all Louisiana students have access to the internet and other remote learning tools.

In response to the pandemic, he said, “Some school districts just couldn’t do online learning because they didn’t have Chromebooks or technology for students to use or students didn’t have access to the internet.” 

According to the McKinsey & Co. report, 32 percent of students across the country have received remote instruction of average or better quality, but only 14 percent of Black students have. Consistent with what Lewis said about the lack of resources from school districts and individual families, the McKinsey & Co. report found that 40 percent of Black students and 30 percent of Hispanic students haven’t received remote instruction at all. 

Nahliah Webber, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network, an organization that advocates for equity in the New Orleans schools, said the pandemic is exacerbating already existing racial disparities across the state.

The country’s educational system sets white students up to succeed, she said, “but does not set up Black students or other marginalized students for success … in the same way. I would say it’s by design that these so-called ‘gaps’ exist,” Webber said.

According to Miseducation, a ProPublica database on racial disparities in schools, Louisiana’s Black students are 2.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, while white students are 1.8 times more likely to be in an AP class.

To Webber, those numbers help prove the system’s metrics for success are racially biased. “If you offer a more holistic and truer assessment of a range of talents and abilities that children can have, you’re going to see very different things,” she said.

Webber says the pandemic is an opportunity for school systems to rethink the way they do things.

“How do we serve Black children as children? Not as ‘underserved children’ or ‘at-risk’ children or ‘opportunity-gap’ children, but as children?” she asked. “I think if we allow ourselves just to imagine just a little bit, we might … come up with something a little more humane than what Black students have been experiencing in their classrooms.”

Troi Bechet, founder and CEO of the Center for Restorative Approaches, said that a first step in finding a solution is acknowledging systemic racism.

“They still have people who believe that (systemic racism does not exist),” Bechet said, “despite the fact that disparities are seen amongst people of color in every system that exists in the United States of America: education, employment, justice, housing.”

Bechet said that it’s not enough for schools to not be racist; they must be actively anti-racist. That means, she said, that schools need to strive toward equity and inclusion with their students.

Schools can start, she said, by including a commitment to equity and inclusion in their mission statement.

“That way, the community can hold schools accountable to that,” said Bechet. “Unless you explicitly state that, unless you explicitly talk about that when you’re hiring people, you’re not doing everything you can to move the needle toward equity.”