The 2020 School Closures: Implications and Recommendations for the Ignored, Underserved, Underclass of Black America

Earlier this month, as I sat on a panel discussing the after affects of the school closures of 2020 we discussed many of the issues that arose from the pandemic and a theme started to organically appear from our responses.  There seemed to be a general consensus amongst the social worker, school principal, PTA president, and I that the most significant impact that the pandemic has left on education was the great amount of learning loss children have experienced. 

Recent studies reveal that Black children from low-income homes suffered the greatest learning loss largely because their parents were essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic and therefore were not afforded the luxury of working from home like many of their Black middle class counterparts.  Being forced to work outside of the home often left their children alone to supervise their own online learning experience.  When given that autonomy, many of those children chose to opt out by muting their teachers or simply not logging into school at all.

As the data shows, children who come from low-income homes exhibit the lowest reading scores.  Years of reading research have shown that when children do not master phonemic awareness, phonics, and fluency by the end of 3rd grade, they are at risk of illiteracy.  This is because the 4th grade curriculum is no longer about learning to read but is about reading to learn.   The focus shifts from decoding to comprehension; students are exposed to literature in the content areas such as social studies, science, mathematics, and English language arts and are expected to locate text evidence to answer questions pertaining to the main idea of the reading passage, the author’s point-of-view, and the difference between facts and opinions.

By the end of 7th grade students must read a balance of literature and informational texts ranging from full-length to shorter works.  This means reading literature that includes stories, drama, poetry, fiction, and other literary texts as well as reading informational texts that include biographies, autobiographies, non-fiction books, and articles about science, art, history, social studies, and information displayed in charts, graphs, and maps both in print and digital sources.  According to the New York State Learning Standards, 7th graders must not only read textbooks and trade books, but they must also read texts written for the public, including blogs/websites, books, films, and magazine and newspaper articles.

In 1999, The National Center for Educational Services (NCES) reported long-term trends in education in America.  They are as follows:

  • By the end of grade 4, African American, Latino and poor students of all races are two years behind other students.
  • By 8th grade, they are three years behind.
  • By 12th grade, minority students who stayed in school are about four years behind other young people.

In 2019, we can see that those trends continued to remain the same. 

  • 35% of fourth graders read “below basic” level.
  • 47% of adults do not read well enough to meet normal job requirements.
  • 34% of 8th grade white and Asian students score at or above Proficient on current NAEP compared to 13% of African American students and 15% of Hispanic students.

(National Center for Education Statistics, 2019; National Governing Board, 2019; U.S DOE Office of Vocational and Adult Services)

This proves that we have been in a national crisis prior to the school closures during the 2020 pandemic.

During the early childhood years, when students are receiving developmentally, age-appropriate services, the following basic language learning skills should occur:

  • In Pre-K they’re learning the sounds of the language or phonological awareness.
  • In Kindergarten, they’re assigning those sounds to letters, which is phonics instruction or the alphabetic principle. 
  • By the end of 1st grade students should be able to decode with automaticity.  They take their time to decode when reading a passage; however, they should not be focusing on letter-sound recognition at this point.
  • By 2nd and 3rd grade, students should be focused on fluency, vocabulary and comprehension when reading a passage.

Children only get one chance to be 8 years old in the 3rd grade.  We cannot miss the opportunity to fully engage and challenge them in the moment. 

A Plan to Build Back Better

            Learning loss threatens educator’s ability to build human capital for our nation.  If large amounts of students graduate from high school illiterate, the nation will be facing a human capital deficit.  To bring awareness to this crisis, The World Bank and the UNESCO Institute for Statistics jointly created the concept of Learning Poverty.  Learning poverty means being unable to read and understand a simple text by age 10.  The World Bank posits that, “progress in reducing learning poverty is far too slow to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) aspirations: at the pre-pandemic rate of improvement, about 43 percent of children will still be learning-poor in 2030.”  As we know, high levels of illiteracy are an early warning sign of high levels of unemployment, which is an indicator of additional poverty and could ultimately lead to incarceration.

In order to reverse learning loss there has to be three key elements.  First, there must be data that provides evidence of learning loss.  Second, there must be targeted instruction focused on accelerating each child.  Third, the role of parents, families, and communities must be reinforced and strengthened to aid in whole child development.

When students are at-risk of illiteracy, educators must implement a number of programs to identify the gaps in learning loss.  At the beginning of the year (BOY) a diagnostic assessment must be administered to each child in order to detect which skills the child is lacking or struggling to master.  Then, these specific skills should be taught explicitly and regularly screened for growth.  This involves providing differentiated lessons and assignments for each child.  It also means that these children should be placed in temporary small reading groups that are fluid and allows children to grow and move up periodically to higher reading groups upon skill mastery.  However, the reading groups should be diverse enough for students to be able to learn from each other in peer assisted learning strategy (PALS) groups.  By the middle of the year (MOY) progress monitoring data should reveal which skills have been mastered or if additional skills are lacking.  By the end of the school year (EOY), students should have received all of the intensive and supplemental programs and services they needed to advance to reading proficiency. 

As was evident from the pandemic, poor Blacks have been historically and systemically ignored for many years in all institutions in America including education, health care, employment, and politics.  Just one day prior to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, he was attending a strike in Memphis as part of the Poor People’s Campaign.  It was no secret that after attaining Civil Rights for Black Americans, it was the poor who still needed special attention for access to employment, affordable housing, and health care.  This movement for poor people did not spring up over night.  Much organizing had taken place years prior.  Dr. King took on that fight; however, the next day he was assassinated and the Poor People’s Campaign came to a screeching halt.

In 2020, 52 years after the Poor People’s Campaign was largely forgotten and poor Blacks became an ignored underclass, the pandemic exposed what had been festering for so long: The systemic imprisonment, harsh punishment, murder of poor, innocent Blacks at the hands of the highly militarized police and the violent correctional apparatus.  As Michelle Alexander brought out in The New Jim Crow, there are more Black people incarcerated and directly under the control of correctional agencies in the second decade of the twenty-first century than there were enslaved in 1850.  When parents are incarcerated it is impossible for them to attend parent teacher conferences, help their child complete homework assignments, or read to them every night.

In Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Angela Y. Davis points out that since the 1980’s global capitalism, the process of industrialization, and the prison industrial complex have decimated the working class community.  Had free education, free health care, and affordable housing been on the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century, Dr. Martin Luther King and the Black Panther Party would not have needed to bring them up in the 1960’s.  But, the forty acres and a mule was dropped from the abolitionist agenda in the nineteenth century and here we are today lacking the essential pathways to economic freedom which would afford poor Blacks the ability to fully participate in American society and build community that is sustainable for future Black children.

Community Leadership

Although this pandemic impacted everyone on some level, it is poor Black children who suffered the most.  Change can happen but it will require the right moves and a certain level of political savvy in order to get the resources to the right places.  For this reason, change does not happen within the system because of the vast amount of bureaucracy and red tape that must be navigated.  The community and parents must organize to drive the changes that need to be made in the system. 

Issues in the educational system that need to change are the following:

  • Zero tolerance policies
  • Standardized tests
  • Community control of schools

First, zero tolerance policies are equivalent to the one-strike you’re out disciplinary action plan.  It mirrors the three-strike policy in the criminal justice system that sentences adults to life imprisonment regardless of whether or not violence was involved.  We have seen how this is harsh and does not allow the child to restore or repair their wrong behavior.  Today, progressive educators are moving toward restorative practices that build community and focuses on long-term results that help children develop into mature adults who can make good decisions for the greater good of their community.

Second, standardized tests are a federal program that claims to use test scores to determine where to allocate resources for low-income communities.  However, this is a false accountability system that is used to collect reading score data to determine how many additional prisons to build.  As was previously mentioned at the onset of this blog, 4th grade reading scores are an indicator of illiteracy and high levels of illiteracy leads to unemployment which prolongs the cycle of generational poverty and unfortunately, in this country, leads to imprisonment.  Therefore, the federal government uses big data to capitalize on the poor.

Third, community control of schools is needed for the Black community to make decisions regarding children’s education.   Historically, the Black community has fought for the ideals of identity and self-determination.  This means being able to vote on where funds should be allocated in the schools in the Black community and an afro-centric curriculum that puts Black children in a positive light so that they can appreciate and value their own families, communities, and leaders.  And it means being able to train and hire Black teachers and administrators who can model the way for Black children to excel academically.

When schools reopened in 2021 community input was ignored.  There was a rush to get back to a “normal” that no longer exists.  The school year started without assessing and addressing the social emotional and community issues that surfaced over the past two years.  As a result, there is an increase in behavior referrals and no change in disciplinary action.  An overwhelming majority of parents from underserved communities continue to opt out of public schools altogether and choose charter and independent school.  In the New York City schools, enrollment dropped from 1.1 million to 980,000 within the past five years with the majority of transfers occurring during the pandemic. 

News reports containing an uptick in violence involving teenagers also casts a shadow over the city.  On April 8th, a 16-year-old girl was killed and two other teens were injured in a shooting in the Bronx around the corner from the high school my daughter graduated from on St. Ann’s Avenue.  Two weeks prior to that, on March 23rd, a 14-year-old boy was pummeled in a Brooklyn subway station.  And then on Tuesday, April 12th the unthinkable happened: a gunman set off smoke grenades and fired off 33 shots striking 10 people on the Manhattan-bound N train during morning rush-hour.  These are all symptoms of an unhealthy community. 

In order to impact change, parents and community members must write local and state legislators and demand that education conducts business in a proactive, diplomatic way that is fair and sustainable for marginalized families that have been historically ignored and underserved in the Black community.

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