How Does COVID-19 Create Inequity in K-12 Education?

Lessons from a Pandemic: Amid COVID-19, sociology professor Natasha Warikoo says educators and parents must keep equity as their focus
In the video above, Natasha Warikoo, professor of sociology at the School of Arts and Sciences, outlines how COVID-19 has created and highlighted inequities in K-12 education that reflect inequities in American society in general. Video: Jandro Cisneros
October 6, 2020

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“Lessons from a Pandemic” is an occasional video series featuring Tufts faculty offering perspectives on COVID-19.

Natasha K. Warikoo, professor of sociology at Tufts University, has spent her career researching racial and ethnic inequality in education. The award-winning author is also a parent and a former public school teacher who knows first-hand how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting students and families in K-12 education.

However, she pointed out, some students are feeling the impact more than others.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created or exacerbated inequality that already exists in education—and really in American society,” she said. “Families who are disadvantaged are experiencing economic hardship, food insecurity, and lack of access to technology, all of which hinder their access to remote learning.”

For students attending a virtual school, some have a parent, adult, or older sibling at home who can help them, while others do not. For some families, even if there is someone at home to help, Warikoo pointed out that the parent may not be fluent in English or have the computer skills to support the student. Older siblings may be attending school themselves or have additional responsibility, such as a job, to contribute to the family.

COVID-19 has impacted Black communities at higher rates than white communities, Warikoo said, and Black families have been more likely to choose remote learning. She said schools should be working to make virtual education as robust as in-person education to ensure those students don’t fall behind. Studies have shown that disadvantaged children of all races fall behind when school isn’t in session, such as during summer vacation.

She also expressed concern about the concept of learning pods, where small groups of similarly aged children learn together in each other’s homes and their families hire a teacher to work with them.

“When schools closed, some parents were saying, ‘I don't want my child to fall behind, I have the resources.’ That’s understandable, but obviously, not all families have the economic resources to do that, nor would they have the social networks to find someone to hire or to connect with other families,” she said.

Warikoo encouraged parents to think broadly about who they invite into learning pods and not rely only on their own social networks. Parents also can be an advocate for families with greater needs through awareness at a societal level and policy level. “How do we advocate for our town to make sure that everybody has access to a computer, for example? Or how do we volunteer our time so that other families can also be successful?” she asked.

 Angela Nelson can be reached at angela.nelson@tufts.edu.