The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed longstanding inequities across the globe. As education leaders move forward with plans for what learning will look like “after COVID,” they must consider how to advance equity and access for the nation’s most marginalized student groups.
During a virtual FETC keynote, Dr. Lisa N. Williams, executive director of equity and cultural proficiency for Baltimore County Public Schools in Maryland, emphasized the need for educators to carefully think about and analyze the questions raised by the pandemic moving forward.
The sudden shift to online learning highlighted vast gaps, including students without access to devices, those without reliable (or any) internet connections, students experiencing the stress of food or housing insecurity, and more.
“Issues of equity and access are fundamentally human issues,” Williams said.
Questions of equity and access are ever-present, and as educators think about historically marginalized groups, it’s important for each and every person to consider the different needs of different student groups. Data can serve as a market to begin those conversations, Williams said, as educators can identify racially- or gender-based predictable patterns.
When it comes to the age-old debate over equity versus equality, it’s not an either/or situation–it’s a both/and scenario–and accessibility plays an incredibly important role in the debate, Williams said.
“We know all of our students need access to devices. We know all of our students need access to the internet. We know all of our students need access to online resources. But even if we adjust those three things, the question of what makes those three items accessible hasn’t been answered,” she said.
“What is important for all students to have, but then how do we [also] get closer to the solutions around what makes the ‘having’ accessible? I could give everyone a pair of shoes, and if I gave you all shoes based on the size show I wear, many would be deeply dissatisfied by that solution,” Williams continued. “This is often what we wrestle with. It is true that all of our students need access to adequate resources, but that in and of itself doesn’t answer the question of what, about that resource, do we need to shift, modify, or scaffold to make that resource accessible?”
The pandemic has helped educators see the communities and groups who have previously been “invisibly vulnerable,” but whose vulnerability is now very evident.
“As we think about schooling, teaching, learning, leading, we have to be having those conversations about what it needs to look like in order to be responsive to the needs of the community,” Williams said.
Moving forward, educators must fight the urge to move back toward old norms, she added.
“At the end of the day, what we share is a common humanity. When we let a condition exist that marginalizes or excludes or underserves one group of students, the only thing that really tells us is the vulnerability that any group can experience–it’s just a question of time, place, or circumstance.”