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COMMENTARY: Questions of equity during a global pandemic
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COMMENTARY: Questions of equity during a global pandemic

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PHOTO: Virtual learning

Amid the daily appeals surrounding social change, COVID-19 vaccinations, and businesses’ million-dollar commitment to racial equity , education may be the beacon of light that helps us understand equity through how the K-12 community responded to the pandemic.

In 2020, three months into my term on the Spotsylvania School Board, I spent my time wondering how to discuss equity.

It had become clear to me, after watching countless children sitting at home during school days, and passionate parents taking to social media to call for access and schools to reopen during the pandemic, that achieving equity is more about giving children what they need to succeed, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender and ZIP code.

One of the most widely recognized areas of impact and disruption during the pandemic was education. From every corner of the country, images of desperate students and committed teachers flooded newsfeeds and social media posts.

But these heartwarming tales also brought attention to the many ways in which education demonstrated the lack of equitable practices beyond the scope of race. Particularly in today’s climate of intense racial tension and social justice demands, it is no surprise that race is often the primary concern when discussing issues of equity.

However, as stakeholders search for answers about how to educate kids—all kids—issues such as accessibility and just distribution of resources have necessitated reinterpreting this understanding.

During the quarantines and shutdowns, students and teachers scrambled to adapt to these new demands. Suddenly, the world saw the reality that schools were more than math problems on a chalkboard: They were trusted lifelines.

Transportation, meals, mental health services, even hygiene products and other necessities were only a few of the instantly erased resources from many communities (and not just based on race). Indeed, individuals who have been historically and systematically ignored or made to feel invisible finally secured long overdue attention, ultimately unveiling the non-racial areas of marginalization.

In a recent study about students’ struggles with technology and virtual learning, only 30 percent of teachers at schools with 75–100 percent of free-and-reduced-cost lunch recipients reported that most of their students had internet access at home, as opposed to the 83 percent from those in less impoverished areas.

This “digital divide,” as some have called it, will take considerable measures to correct. However, after receiving federal funds under the CARES Act, schools have launched programs at the local level to close such gaps.

According to No Kid Hungry, 47 percent of American families are living in hunger due to extreme circumstances brought on by the pandemic. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided to extend free meal services to all students throughout the 2020–21 school year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also outlined several new programs for safely distributing food to communities in need, including drive-through, walk-up and delivery models. Like the University of Illinois, Chicago, some colleges have even developed “pop-up pantries” to provide food for those children in need.

A new Gallup panel poll revealed that 3 in 10 parents believe their child is experiencing harm to their social and emotional health due to social distancing and school closures. Recent student surveys indicate that without the support of school counselors and mental health services, 55 percent of students do not know where to go for professional help.

Across the country, social workers now conduct wellness checks for all students. Through home visits, virtual sessions, and other outreach programs, the increased demand for mental health services includes both students and their parents/guardians.

Students with disabilities who lack necessary accommodations and modifications for learning that are typically provided through their Individualized Education Program (IEP), are leading school districts to reconsider methods to provide services to these diverse groups. And Zoom has recently reported a commitment to improve platform accessibility options.

These new studies and statistics testify to our schools’ importance and the crucial demand for social equity. As new information continues to emerge about the diverse populations seeking assistance or accommodations, education has laid the groundwork for an equitable and prosperous community.

When we examine how education has addressed the call for equitable action, we may realize that justice and accessibility are paramount. Both equality and equity are needed in our society, as these two terms mean different things.

Equity remains a salient issue for one simple reason: We are “one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.” Equality is important because we all want to live in a fair society. So let’s get this right for our future generation.

Dr. Lorita Copeland Daniels, the vice chairwoman of the Spotsylvania County Public Schools, was elected to the

school board in 2020.

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