Supporting Marginalized Students As the Pandemic Continues

Supporting Marginalized Students As the Pandemic Continues

In one form or another, virtual learning is likely to shape the upcoming academic year in districts across the country.

Indeed, some of the nation’s largest school systems have committed to an online-only learning model for the foreseeable future, with millions of students and teachers expecting to engage in distance learning until pandemic mitigation tactics prove more successful.

Yet while virtual learning will certainly help keep students, teachers, and their families safe, it also poses considerable challenges—especially for students from marginalized communities. Because existing education-related inequalities were exacerbated when most of the nation's K–12 schools shut down seemingly overnight in the spring of 2020, marginalized students were disproportionately impacted by the closures.

A June segment from NBC News highlighted these disparities by profiling two public high-school students from Michigan who had extremely different experiences despite living just a few miles apart. When shutdowns affected their schools (one of which is located in Detroit, the other in a suburb), the student from the suburban school system was provided with a personal laptop in a matter of days, while the Detroit-based student had to share a single computer with the other children in her family. As her siblings had their own remote learning to do, the Detroit-based student struggled to keep up with her virtual classes.

With some school districts committed to online-only learning in the fall and others implementing hybrid models that combine remote and in-person instruction, virtual learning is likely to be part of the "new normal" for a while. Let’s take a look at some elements to consider when working to ensure marginalized students have the resources they need at home and at school.


With race and poverty so closely linked in the United States, students of color are much more likely to live in racially and economically marginalized communities. Indeed, according to a joint analysis recently conducted by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Indian Education Association, the National Urban League, and UnidosUS, as many as one-third of students who identify as American Indian, Black, or Latino do not have high-speed internet service at home.

This finding prompted Education Week contributor Andrew Ujifusa to make the following declaration: “The decision by a rising number of school districts to start a new year with remote-only learning during the pandemic could disadvantage millions of students.”

Advocates are currently trying to secure a multibillion dollar package from federal officials in an effort to mitigate the impact of this alarming prospect. According to Ujifusa, having such funds added to future pandemic relief packages would be a way to increase the availability of the “federal E-Rate program, which provides discounted internet services to schools and libraries.”

Air quality

In addition to being disproportionately likely to encounter internet access roadblocks, students from marginalized communities are more likely to attend school in crumbling buildings due to factors such as segregation and funding disparities. This is of particular concern in the COVID-19 era, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that schools' HVAC systems be in good working order to help control the spread of the virus.

However, the Government Accounting Office has estimated that around 36,000 school buildings in the U.S. lack functioning HVAC systems—and, as Ujifusa noted in a separate Education Week article, racially and economically marginalized students are more likely to attend schools with outdated brick-and-mortar infrastructures, as well as to suffer from the coronavirus.


According to the National Education Association (NEA) guidance for school reopenings, flexibility will be key for this upcoming school year. Although a number of teachers are actively resisting reopenings unless safety protocols are followed, schools that do reopen may have to shut down or suddenly switch to an online-only model in the event of local COVID-19 outbreaks. Needless to say, this will require tremendous elasticity and advanced planning on the part of teachers, administrators, support staff, and other members of the school community.

In a July blog post, Shayla Griffin, a Michigan-based educator and parent with a background in social work, wrote about how to equitably proceed with school reopening plans in the current climate. According to Griffin, one way to prioritize the needs of marginalized students during this uncertain time would be to reopen school buildings for "those who will not eat without school, those who will not be safe in their homes without school, those who are too young to be left home alone unsupervised but will be left anyway because their parents have no choice but to work in order to feed them, [and] those with disabilities that cannot be supported outside of a school building." Meanwhile, students who do not fall into these categories would engage in online learning from home to minimize the potential for COVID-19 exposure and spread.

The bottom line

Marginalized students have been and will continue to be hit particularly hard by the ongoing pandemic, so it is critical to keep these vulnerable individuals top of mind in any and all decision-making for the fall semester.

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