March 23, 2020 Articles

How Will COVID-19 Affect Equity in Education?

The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity to educate students about the importance of equality and anti-discrimination.

By Janice V. Arellano
School officials must be reminded of their obligation to avoid discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic.

School officials must be reminded of their obligation to avoid discrimination during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the delivery of instruction in K-12 and institutions of higher education to almost exclusively online. It is imperative that educators and school officials continue to deliver messages of positivity to the school community and ensure that there is equity in the delivery of education. This is the perfect opportunity to educate students about the importance of equality, anti-discrimination, investigate harassment and bullying complaints promptly, and prohibit xenophobia.

On March 16, 2020, the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) established a working group and guidance to parents, students, and educators in school districts and postsecondary schools. The working group set forth reminders to schools of their obligation to comply with anti-discrimination laws and their obligation to ensure online education is accessible to students with disabilities.

The key components of the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights’ guidance to educators are as follows are described below.

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Denial of Access on the Basis of Race, Color, or National Origin

The OCR fact sheet reminds school officials that they have an obligation to avoid discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin while cooperating with public health authorities to ensure that individuals are assessed and treated appropriately. School officials may not rely on assumptions or stereotypes related to race, color, or national origin in identifying students who may have recently traveled to a country with widespread transmission of coronavirus or who may otherwise be at risk of the infection.

I think the fact sheet can go a step further and ensure that educators and parents are delivering messages to their students about our nation’s history of anti-Asian racism toward Asian American families and businesses but also to condemn any attacks targeting the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities. The Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania’s Statement Regarding Anti-Asian Racism Associated with the Coronavirus, dated March 12, 2020, would be a great starting place for educators and school officials.

Bullying and Harassment

School officials still have an obligation to take appropriate action and steps to investigate and respond to any reports of bullying and harassment on the basis of race, color, national origin, or perceived disability. School officials, parents, and educators must be mindful of the fact that delivery of instruction shifts to online platforms that students must inform the school of any harassment and bullying online.

Students with Disabilities

Schools that have educational programming online should ensure that students with disabilities and with Individualized Education Plans (IEP) have access to the same information and enjoy the same programming as their nondisabled peers. School officials have an obligation to ensure that students who are receiving services under Section 504 and an IEP. Here is a Q&A from the Department of Education on Providing Services to Children with Disabilities During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak.

On March 17, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education published an OCR Short Webinar on Online Education and Website Accessibility that can be accessed for free on YouTube.

In 2008, I was a newly minted second grade teacher and I taught in an underrepresented school in West Philadelphia, where many of my students lived below or at the poverty line. They were also all of African and/or Caribbean descent in a marginalized community. My students did not have Chromebooks or iPads like their suburban counterparts. Many of my students’ parents and guardians, all well-intentioned, relied on the physical space of the school to provide adequate shelter and meals to their children. I cannot imagine how students and families in the school community in which I taught are navigating the impact of COVID-19. Many students cannot just go home to a fully stocked fridge and all the resources of educational tools at their disposal.

This pandemic has presented us with many challenges. However, this is the opportunity for school officials to build community, albeit remotely, which can make a positive impact in the future of education.

Janice V. Arellano is an associate at Cleary Giacobbe Alfieri Jacobs, LLC in Matawan, Somerville, and Oakland, New Jersey, and former cochair of the Section of Litigation's Minority Trial Lawyer Committee. She currently serves on the Diversity & Inclusion and Social Media Committees.


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