The Ally: August 2020 – Oleta Fitzgerald

Oleta Fitzgerald
Southern Regional Director
Children’s Defense Fund

Covid-19 and K-12 Education

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) is a national nonprofit child advocacy organization that has worked for nearly 50 years to uplift all children, especially poor children and children of color. CDF’s Jackson, MS Southern Regional Office has worked on advocacy and public policy issues related to opportunities for poor children and families for 25 of those years. A key focus of this work has been access to quality public education, including early childhood education.

Long before COVID-19, our programmatic work, and advocacy for fully funding Mississippi’s K-12 public schools gave us a clear understanding of the challenges pre- COVID that are exacerbated by this terrible pandemic.

Many Mississippi public school districts are located in areas where poverty rates are highest, and property values are lowest have struggled. COVID-19 laid bare the disproportionate impact on these very school districts. Research has revealed that poverty – more than race – is the critical determinant in k-12 achievement gaps. Well-resourced communities were able to move quickly to virtual learning as schools were well-equipped with technology. Teachers were trained, and families had access to reliable broadband. Parents were more prepared to assist in their child’s learning. Children either already had the devices they needed to attend online classes or their school districts were able to provide them.

In poor and primarily rural areas of our state, children struggled long before COVID to access technology because of a lack of affordable and accessible broadband. Often those students who were able traveled to small shopping centers and restaurant parking lots to access “hot spots” to complete their homework. Many districts serving these areas also did not have robust technology programs or staff within all of their schools. Consequently, their experience moving to virtual learning opportunities was much more limited than those located in the more well-resourced communities.

Many in the nonprofit and philanthropic community provide services to k-12 schools. They know first hand how COVID-19 has disrupted the delivery of services to children in greatest need. We also know that children who were the most vulnerable before COVID are most likely to fall further behind as a result of COVID’s devastating impacts. These concerns and the need for parents to return to their desperately needed jobs are driving the push to re-open schools. We know that poor children have more significant health care issues and that our school workforce is reflective of those at the highest risk for contracting and experiencing the worst outcomes of this disease.

In addition to these challenges, a recent General Accounting Office report found about half of the districts they surveyed needed to update or replace multiple systems like heating, ventilation, air conditioning, or plumbing, and one third needed HVAC system updates. Old and crumbling school buildings pose severe health risks since we know that poor ventilation spreads the disease. Though school districts are to receive additional resources through federal COVID-19 funding for WiFi hot spots and devices – they will not receive the required resources to decrease all of the challenges outlined here. There will be expected delays in how able they are to staff up and ramp up the provision of virtual learning.

What may be the role of Mississippi’s nonprofit and philanthropic communities? Mississippi government does not appear prepared to do what is necessary. There is a dire need for non-governmental organization leaders to help plan our way out of COVID and toward long term recovery, better prepared and better resourced to help the most vulnerable children and families in our state.