The Education and Health Law Clinic provides free legal representation to low-income parents of students with disabilities, who are struggling to receive adequate services for their children from their school districts.
Through my work in the Clinic, I have learned significantly about the inequities throughout the education system, particularly in New Jersey, and how those inequities continue to increase in light of Covid-19. This pandemic has caused detrimental disruptions for students in elementary, middle, and high school. These students are still in the process of learning fundamental skills that are meant to help them succeed to go onto higher education or other post-high school endeavors.
With a four-month loss of formal, in-classroom education, it is very likely that students’ academic progress will be stunted or even regress. While every student, regardless of their school district, is facing obstacles with their education, it is important to highlight that students of color and students with disabilities in low-income school districts are a lot more vulnerable to the effects of remote learning.
It is important to note that before Covid-19 caused massive shutdowns in March 2020, school districts in New Jersey were operating on various levels of academic success. There are 555 school districts in New Jersey and each has its own resources to provide to its students.
In wealthy districts like Princeton, Millburn, and Haddonfield, which are predominantly made up of Caucasian families, their students do not learn with out-of-date textbooks, limited access to technology, and inadequate funding for after-school activities. Comparatively, in low-income school districts like Trenton, Newark, and Camden, which are predominantly made up of African-American and Hispanic families, that reality is all too common for their students.
The interesting aspect about this dichotomy is that these wealthy and low-income districts are close in proximity to one another, yet the side of the border a student resides in makes all the difference. This is due to the history of redlining, “white flight,” and lack of upward mobility that has separated Caucasian families and black and brown families for decades.
Under the spotlight of Covid-19, the already apparent inequities among these districts have not only been drawn to the forefront, but they have increased. Due to this pandemic, schools were forced to remote instruction. However, remote teaching can only be done with access to technological devices, and that access varies depending solely on the district. Wealthier school districts have the luxury to assume the majority of their students have access to laptops and reliable Wi-Fi at home. Plus, these districts can independently provide laptops or iPads with hotspot connections to those who are in need.
On the other hand, many low-income districts have a limited number of laptops and a large population of students who do not have access to laptops or reliable Wi-Fi at home. These districts have to rely on the generosity of outside donations to supply the needs of those who do not have access. For students who are unable to receive a laptop, they have been given work packets and have little to no access to their teachers for guidance. For those students who are given packets, it will be even more challenging to track their academic progress than it already is for students using a laptop.
Evidently, through the disproportionate access to basic necessities of remote learning in the 21st century, the effects of this pandemic will place a vast number of students of color at an additional disadvantage to their Caucasian peers in nearby districts.
Another group of students greatly disadvantaged by this pandemic are students with disabilities. These students require trained professionals to assist them with their learning, and cannot effectively rely on their parents to fill that void. Some students with milder disabilities are able to receive certain services like speech therapy or counseling through teletherapy and other virtual services. However, for students with severe disabilities, remote learning is quite unfeasible.
For example, in our clinic, we have clients who have both visual and hearing impairments. Having both of these impairments make learning through a laptop at home close to impossible as they normally attend schools that are specifically designed to help them learn with their impairments.
We also have clients that cannot physically write and require occupational therapy to improve their skills, but it is very challenging to effectively teach a student how to write through a laptop or over a phone. These are just a couple of services out of many that require much more than technology to help students with disabilities learn. Furthermore, students with disabilities are also the most vulnerable to regressing in their academic growth. This issue of regression is compounded by the fact that many of these students were already several grade levels behind.
The question we are now asking in the clinic is “What will happen when school reopens?” Before Covid-19, our clients and other similarly situated students did not easily receive the adequate services they need to have an effective learning experience. When school reopens, they will now require additional services to make up for their four month deprivation of education.
For students in low-income districts, this will be difficult because these districts already have limited means to provide suitable services for students with disabilities. Additionally, many parents in these districts do not have the expendable wealth to pay for their child to attend a private school that is better suited to fulfill their child’s needs.
Contrastingly, students with disabilities in wealthy districts will also face the same situation when they go back to school, but will likely be in a better position to receive the resources they need to progress with their education. This is because wealthy public school districts have more adequate resources to help their students and because parents in these districts are in a better position to pay for their child to attend a private school that can better assist their child’s needs.
While it is clear that there are disparities across school districts, it is noteworthy to acknowledge that this pandemic will also increase disparities within some districts as well. For example, some districts have implemented a policy that states each school in their district has the responsibility for developing their own remote instruction plans. A policy like this can create further educational gaps within the district because each school can have different expectations of the type of instruction their faculty is supposed to provide to their students.
As New Jersey and the rest of the country strategize on how to safely reopen schools, it is important for the government to consider the rampant inequality that existed before this pandemic, how the pandemic made it worse, and what should be done moving forward to level the academic progress for all students, regardless of race or ethnicity and socio-economic background, in order to provide every student with the most robust education possible.