Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Leaders Make Matters Worse By Playing Politics with Students’ Health and Education

“We cannot return to the classroom and do things the same as they have always been done and expect to see a different outcome. Instead, we must use this critical moment in education to radically rethink how programs, policies, and opportunities are designed and fiercely commit to prioritizing the communities most impacted by the pandemic and distributing resources accordingly.” — NWEA Center for School and Student Progress

Across the country, students are embarking on what is certain to be a third consecutive academic year that is compromised or disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. While this is unfortunate for all students, it’s especially dire for students of color and low-income students, who experienced the steepest setbacks as a result of interrupted instruction.

To make matters worse, students are being used as pawns by politicians more concerned with signifying partisan loyalty than with the health and education of public schoolchildren. Twenty states have prohibited proof-of-vaccination requirements. At least eight states — Florida, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah — have imposed bans on school districts requiring masks. Florida and Arizona have gone so far as to threaten to withhold funding from districts that impose mask mandates.

As U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has pointed out, these policies represent discrimination against students who cannot attend school because of the risk to their health. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is preparing to launch investigations in states block mask mandates — a move the National Urban League emphatically supports.

It’s appropriate that Secretary Cardona recognizes pandemic-related educational disruption as a civil rights issue. As I testified earlier this year to the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood Elementary and Secondary Education, Black children are more likely than their White counterparts to lack the internet access and the devices necessary to receive adequate remote instruction. This “homework gap” affects one in three Black, Latino, and American Indian Alaska Native students.

The effects on inequality have been stark. Research released last month showed students in majority Black or Hispanic schools ended the school year six months behind where they normally would have been in math, compared with four months for white students. Students in low-income schools were seven months behind.

“Put simply, the students who could least afford to lose ground relative to other students are those who were the most impacted,” wrote the authors of a similar report that reached the same conclusions.

The educational research organization NWEA, which produced the report, offered several policy recommendations to support students’ health and well-being while at the same time expanding access to excellent educational opportunities. These include:

• Re-engage for all students, with a focus on historically underserved students.
• Continue to support access to remote learning technology for students and families.
• Attend to physical, social, and mental health needs of students and families.
• Measure student progress, rethink assessment systems, and use data to support recovery.
• Support and train teachers and leaders.
• Move from restarting to reimagining accountability and school improvement.

None of these goals are served by endangering the health and safety of students and their families with anti-mask and anti-vaccine policies, or by inviting even more learning interruption by withholding school funding. These misguided, politically motivated and racially discriminatory policies can only serve to widen the already alarming racial achievement gaps. The National Urban League and our network of 91 affiliates across the country stand ready to work with states and school districts on policies that uplift all students and expand educational opportunities for everyone.

Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.

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