Pandemic Heightens Concerns About Academic Equity In Northeast Ohio Schools

Shaw High School in the East Cleveland City School District
Students at East Cleveland Schools started their fall semester remotely Aug. 17. [Jenny Hamel / ideastream]
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Homeroom: A Return to Learning

This story is part of ideastream's special series examining the challenges and perils of returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of K-12 students in Northeast Ohio will not be returning to the classroom this fall – because they’re learning online. But the pandemic is raising concerns academic equity.

Many are concerned the quality of education a student receives will depend on whether they have resources or not. 

The East Cleveland School District’s fall semester started Aug. 17, with all students learning online. Many showed up on campuses last week to get Chromebooks and to let teachers know if they still had issues with connectivity. After a survey in the spring, district CEO Henry Pettiegrew estimated that less than four out of 10 students in his district had internet access. 

East Cleveland school officials joined with a local internet company to get service for those kids. Pettiegrew said his staff also canvassed the neighborhood to connect with students in preparation for what could be a long haul of remote learning.

“I told my folks, you know, we can say nine weeks more realistically,” Pettiegrew said, “it's probably going to be more like half a year if not the whole year.”

He made the decision to go fully remote this fall in June, Pettiegrew said, and it wasn’t an easy decision knowing how important being in school is for students in his district, which is under state control.

East Cleveland is a predominantly Black community that struggles with extreme poverty. And the coronavirus is a particular threat there. A recent report by The Ohio State University and the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., calls COVID-19 the third leading cause of death for Black Americans right now.  

“The situation is frustrating,” Pettiegrew said. “I have a veteran staff. Many of my students... they're being raised by grandparents or other people and will have some issues if they contract the virus. So, we're really worried about getting sick.”

There’s consensus among experts and educators that going remote this fall comes with academic, social and emotional costs, said Stephen Dyer, an education policy fellow at the think tank Innovation Ohio and a former Ohio state legislator.

“I don’t think there’s an educator in any district that doesn’t think in-person education is more effective,” Dyer said. “And especially for kids who need it the most, who have difficult home lives, who have difficulty accessing the internet, who have difficulty accessing the technology necessary to do this kind of thing – it's especially going to be problematic for them. 

So while school district leaders like Pettiegrew scramble to meet students’ basic needs for remote learning, other districts reopen their campuses with safety measures in place.

And in some situations, families are supplementing children’s education by hiring private tutors and creating small learning pods with other families. This kind of academic inequity is nothing new, Dyer said.

“I think the equity gap is there, regardless of COVID,” Dyer said. “I think the equity gap is there primarily because we haven't seriously addressed our school funding problems for the last 30 years.”

Dyer said what school districts like East Cleveland need now is money – especially in light of the fact that the federal CARES Act funding that went to Ohio schools was mostly offset by state budget cuts.

“So they're being asked to do things that cost more with less money,” said Dyer. “Will there be the ability to open safely in these school districts when they don't have the resources necessary to do so?”

In June, Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon testified before Congress, asking for $200 billion on behalf of schools nationwide and calling out the inequity between “fragile” districts like his and districts with ample resources. But so far, attempts to get more substantive coronavirus emergency funding passed in Washington, including for education, have stalled. So districts wait. 

If there is a silver lining to be found, Dyer said it’s that the pandemic is shining a light on the digital divide as an obstacle to equity. Last month, the state announced it would set aside $50 million in federal CARES Act funding to provide hotspots and internet-enabled devices.  But many, including Dyer and Pettiegrew, say it’s time to talk about treating broadband as a public utility. 

“I think especially in communities like [ours], people will choose not to get [internet access] because seems like a luxury,” Pettiegrew said. “I'm sure we can brainstorm a way to give everyone free [access] without putting into their ultimate bottom line. Give schools and children in poverty a way to connect to the world.” 

Meanwhile, he’s looking at the remote learning period positively, “as a time to innovate.”

“It's about going in and connecting with the students,” Pettiegrew said. “Give them some assessments, determine where they are and then begin to build those interventions and supports.”

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