Strategies for Building More Equitable Schools When Returning to the Classroom

Research BriefCOVID-19May 25 2021

Education systems in the United States have experienced, and responded to, a myriad of challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. As funding from the American Rescue Plan (ARP) hits the coffers of educational agencies and the nation transitions from one school year to the next, school leaders must reflect on lessons learned from education system responses to the pandemic and apply them to the nation’s return to in-person learning. This task is not inconsequential. Schools are a critical part of the country’s infrastructure and access to a high-quality education can make a significant difference in the lives of individuals and families across the country.

Longstanding inequities in our educational system make this issue even more important. For example, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, research documented vast educational inequities for students of color (e.g., Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander, and particular Asian groups such as Burmese Americans), including overidentification in special education, exclusionary practices, lowered expectations, and a lack of access to instructional resources.

Other children and youth have also experienced serious and disproportionate disadvantages, including those who live in under-resourced homes and communities, those who have disabilities or specific health or behavioral/emotional needs, those from immigrant backgrounds, and those who are English learners. The pandemic has exacerbated inequities for these populations, possibly creating new challenges that will not be evident until a greater proportion of schools return to in-person learning.

Given their widespread presence and community influence, schools are in a unique position to help create a more equitable society. Any efforts in this area should consider alignment with the Biden-Harris Administration’s executive order on advancing racial equity through systemic and policy change. A more cohesive approach to equity in education would reflect student needs, parent voice, stakeholder input, differences in school populations, and attention to disparities in resources (e.g., funding, high-quality teachers, student/teacher/staff ratios, and sound and well-maintained school buildings). These are not easy goals, but they are worthy of attention for schools that want to ensure equitable access and resources for all children and families.

State, local, and tribal educational leaders will play a critical role in this process, as will other key stakeholders like parents and mental health providers. These groups not only have the knowledge and experience to reimagine an equitable and inclusive approach to education, but will also have access to fiscal resources—thanks to ARP funding—to turn this vision into reality and monitor outcomes. As education leaders debate how to allocate new resources, they should keep the following strategies in mind.

Focus on the whole child in the return to in-person learning

Students have faced isolation, loss, and trauma during the pandemic, all of which have impacted their home and school lives. Resources and plans to address these challenges vary across school districts, and many are ill-equipped to do so. For instance, prior to the pandemic, research found that 60 percent of schools lacked mental health services, and that mental health services for children of color were less accessible and of lower quality than services available to non-Latino White students. Additionally, school staff who may be best equipped to address students’ emotional and health issues (i.e., social workers, counselors, psychologists, and nurses) are in short supply, have high caseloads, and often serve multiple schools.

Districts should consider the full range of student support needs as they allocate resources, as well as the number and type of staff who must attend to students’ needs, the need for staff professional development, and the infrastructure needed to ensure comfort and safety—matters that were addressed unevenly in COVID-19 state guidance for districts. School leaders must also balance academics with the need to foster a school climate that recognizes students’ social and emotional needs.

Incorporate parent voices into school decision making

Parents have played multiple roles during the COVID-19 pandemic and are most aware of their children’s academic, social, emotional, mental, and physical strengths and needs. Schools should solicit feedback from parents on a regular and ongoing basis and should implement mechanisms to translate that information into educational planning for students. Importantly, data collection tools like parent surveys—often analyzed to indicate average preferences—may not meet the unique needs of all students, such as those who have faced economic hardships or significant family loss, or those who have disabilities or special health or other care needs.

Involve varied stakeholders in planning

An equitable approach to reopening necessitates that school leaders listen to parents while also engaging with students, teachers, staff, and other stakeholders when developing plans for in-person schooling. Students, in particular, can offer solutions to strengthen their own educational experiences. School leaders can use virtual town halls, social media, focus groups, and targeted surveys to solicit feedback from students themselves, child and youth-serving organizations, local governments, mental health providers, and other stakeholders. School districts that engage communities in collaborative and inclusive planning will be better able to develop equitable reopening plans that respond to the disparate ways in which students, families, and neighborhoods have been impacted by the pandemic.

Examine and dismantle racist and inequitable practices and develop processes for accountability.

This brief has discussed inequities rooted in racist policies and practices that result in devastating consequences for children, families, and the country. ARP resources should be used to examine and revise policies and practices that may hinder equity in schools in such areas as infrastructure, staffing, data analysis, and funding allocations. This work should not only identify areas that need to be addressed, but should also identify steps to be taken, the persons responsible, and the outcomes expected to ensure that goals are met. Leaders must also conduct a public review of APR plans, followed by external audits of progress and monitoring.

In sum, the country has an extraordinary opportunity to transform its approach to education to better meet the needs of all students, particularly students of color. Educational agencies must be diligent to not squander this opportunity and should adopt a comprehensive approach to advancing equity.