News

Equity must be focus of Connecticut’s new ‘normal,’ school reopening plan (CT Mirror)

Op-ed

View the full op-ed at https://ctmirror.org/category/ct-viewpoints/equity-must-be-focus-of-new-normal-school-reopening-plan/

By Katie Roy

From the tragic loss of more than 4,300 of our neighbors, to the economic insecurity felt by hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused heartache, stress, and anxiety across all four corners of our state.

To put it simply, the pandemic has altered our “normal.”

But among the severe changes and disruptions it has caused, the pandemic has, sadly, not altered the long-standing, painful inequity that continues to be part of Connecticut’s “normal.” In fact, the pandemic has only made the state’s inequity worse, particularly when it comes to education.

This expansion of educational inequity in our state is evident not only in stories about how students in wealthier, suburban districts continued their school year on iPads or laptops while students in Connecticut’s less affluent, urban districts were left to fend for their education with paper packets and worksheets. This inequity is also reflected in the results from a school district survey conducted by the Connecticut State Department of Education on behalf of the Learn from Home Task Force, which found disturbing disparities in distance learning methods and student engagement between Connecticut’s 10 lowest-performing school districts and the state overall.

Unfortunately, the CSDE’s 50-page reopening plan does not adequately address this inequity or recognize the fact that not every Connecticut school district has the funding or resources needed to provide all students with a high-quality, safe, and comprehensive education as our state and nation continue to fight a pandemic. While we recognize Commissioner Miguel Cardona, the CSDE, and the Lamont administration have been faced with an unprecedented and extremely challenging situation, we cannot allow educational equity to be placed on the back burner.

Students, parents, teachers, and administrators in Connecticut’s higher-need districts deserve a comprehensive statewide school reopening plan that provides more than just rhetoric about equity. They deserve a plan that provides specific concrete steps for: ensuring districts have the education and safety resources they need, reengaging students who have not been participating in distance learning, addressing the lack of internet access in Connecticut’s pockets of poverty, and providing appropriate services to students with disabilities.

Failure to have such a comprehensive state plan means the challenges that existed in the Spring for the students, parents, and educators in Connecticut’s poorest and highest-need districts will only worsen.

Researchers estimate students could begin the 2020-21 school year with only 70 percent of the learning gains in reading from the previous year compared to a typical school year. In math, it is estimated students will return with less than 50 percent of the previous year’s learning gains. Learning loss is projected to be even greater among low-income, Black, and Hispanic students.

We cannot allow this to be our new “normal.”

We cannot accept our “normal” to be an education system where less than half of the students in the state’s 10 lowest-performing districts fully participate in distance learning. We cannot accept a “normal” where the students in these same districts are far more likely to not have access to a computer, laptop, or tablet and more likely to have inadequate internet access or no internet access at all. We cannot accept a “normal” where these same students disproportionately face family, health, and trauma barriers to their education.

We cannot stand by and watch the already horrendous educational inequity in our state get even worse. We have to do better, but unfortunately, the current school reopening plan falls short.

By taking an “every district create your own plan” approach, the CSDE and Lamont administration are missing an opportunity to lead and address the educational inequity our state has battled for decades. While district flexibility is important, we cannot pretend that every district in our state has the funding and infrastructure to provide every one of its students and teachers with the education and safety resources to successfully reopen right now or offer a high-quality distance learning program to those parents/guardians that choose for their student(s) to temporarily not participate in the return to school.

Connecticut needs a school reopening plan that recognizes this and provides additional resources and support to the districts and students in our state that need it the most. We need a plan that helps make educational equity part of Connecticut’s new “normal.”

Katie Roy is the executive director and founder of the School and State Finance Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy organization, focused on education funding and state finance issues, with a commitment to providing independent analysis, building public knowledge, improving transparency, and developing fair, sustainable solutions.