Funding influx needed to address equity concerns this school year and beyond

In the topsy-turvy leadup to the 2020–21 school year, the most recent pressing issues involve the logistics of when and how campuses could or should physically reopen. While opening dates are critical for the operations of school districts, national education observers and advocates said at a July 29 Institution for Educational Leadership webinar that key equity concerns must not fade into the background.

“Equity is a concern either way, no matter what reopening looks like,” said Education Week reporter Evie Blad, redirecting attention away from the headline-grabbing political battle over reopening schools.

Funding needs at the forefront

Specifically, panelists at the webinar, “K-12 Education During the Pandemic: What’s at Stake to Ensure Equity for Our Students,” uplifted issues for the most vulnerable students, with a close look at students with disabilities, both during and beyond the pandemic. Officials agreed that significant federal funding — not tied to physically reopening, as proposed in the HEALS Act proposal from Senate Republicans as well as the newly announced “skinny” coronavirus relief bill — must arrive to bolster educational services.

“We need to secure more funding. We’re asking schools to do a lot with very little,” said Meghan Whittaker, director of policy and advocacy for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. “We need to provide federal funds to offset the budget cuts that we’re likely to see to address the digital divide and to address all of the additional technology that they’re going to need to make virtual learning a reality for students.”

Blad said the brewing funding battle in Congress comes amid “a bit of a chicken and an egg problem.” Schools officials recognize the importance of in-person instruction and want to physically reopen schools but say billions of dollars are needed to plan for a safe return. Senate Republicans and the White House, meanwhile, say that to receive a considerable amount of federal aid, schools must soon welcome students back to campus.

In echoing the sentiments of a group of major national education organizations, The Education Trust is calling for a stimulus bill with dedicated K–12 funding to support all services, but particularly those for students who need them the most, said Terra Wallin, the organization’s associate director for P–12 accountability and special projects. Tying funding to reopening plans, she said, only serves to endanger students and staff.

“Our perspective about physical reopenings is that they should be left to up to local leaders working with health experts and community members, and particularly community members who have been most deeply impacted and those who’ve been historically marginalized,” Wallin said.

Outlining key equity concerns

Without adequate funding, intent and proper services implementation from schools, Wallin and Whittaker expressed great fear that achievement and opportunity gaps for undeserved student groups will only be compounded. “While COVID-19 has been hard for everyone, it has been worse for some,” Wallin said. “We hear language sometimes about a return to normal, and in our view a return to normal is a detriment to a lot of students we advocate for.”

Wallin cited new research from McKinsey and Company on the lifetime consequences of learning loss. The study finds that facing varying levels of unfinished instruction, on average, Black students could lose up to 10 months of learning, Latino students could lose nine months and students from low-income backgrounds could lose more than year.

Additionally, Wallin acknowledged that the vast gaps in access to devices, high-speed internet and technology support disproportionately impact students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities, homeless students and other vulnerable populations.

Whittaker reinforced that no significant Individuals with Disabilities Education Act waivers have been granted, and said schools must improve on a number of areas in which they struggled with distance learning in the spring: service delivery, accessibility and accommodations, best practices for virtual instruction, and parent/family engagement and collaboration.

“I think it’s safe to say that students got either a reduced amount of the services laid out in their IEP or in many places gotten no services whatsoever and not a whole lot of concrete plans for how those services would be made up to them in the future,” she said. “We not only need the infrastructure to deliver the IEP services to get that intensive instruction to students, but we need to make sure that general and special educators both have the training and resources that they need to serve students in this very challenging virtual environment.”