Closing the Distance in Distanced Learning

In the wake of COVID-19, schools across the National Capital Area are faced with an overwhelming hurdle; a widening achievement gap from distanced learning. With many schools across the region grappling with whether or how to get students back to school in the fall and the continued transition to online learning, the issue of equity in education resurface.

The final months of the 2019-2020 school year exacerbated the challenges of inequities experienced by students from low-income families. In many communities across the nation, a transition to online learning presented severe barriers in accessibility to education. Limited access to Wi-Fi and laptops left students attempting to obtain their virtual learning on the school’s Wi-Fi from the parking lot. A 2018 report from Microsoft found that nearly half of all Americans lacked high speed Internet. Of that, only 57% of DC residents and 66% percent of Prince George’s County residents had in-home access to high enough Internet to stream. Add to that an unprecedented onset of unemployment in households where access to basic needs was already limited and the ability of nonprofits to fill the gaps becomes all the more important.

While school buildings and administrative offices remained closed, United Way of the National Capital Area’s community schools focused on reducing the negative effects of disrupted learning and social time on a young person’s development. Student grab-and-go meal distributions continued at community school sites, along with curbside pickup and at-home food and meal deliveries for families. Community school coordinators redirected their work towards supporting the coordination of these efforts, while also hosting online social emotional and academic support groups, facilitating online English language classes for adults, and offering case management services to students and their families. They adjusted to the new normal of distance learning and found new ways of connecting with students and families to ensure they were safe and healthy during this time.

As a region, we are making progress on improving high school graduation rate, but still thousands of students are left behind every year. In the District of Columbia, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education reported that 2,170 students graduated from DC Public Schools in 2019. Out of that number, 92.3% were White, 67.8% were Black, and 56.5% were Latinx. According to the Maryland School Report Card, in Prince Georges County the graduation rate was 78.47%, but for Latinx students the rate was 62.38%. According to the Virginia Department of Education School Profiles, in Fairfax County 1,095 students dropped out of high school in 2019 and out of that number, 888 of those students were Latinx. In Alexandria, the graduation rate was 83.5% but only 68.5% English Language Learners graduated. These data point to great disparities in educational outcomes that can impact students’ chances for lifelong prosperity.

There is no one size fits all solution to race, inequality and education. As we look at ahead at closing the gaps in education put in place from the pandemic and those that existed before, we must continue to build capacity for schools to ensure that all students have the ability and support to succeed. This summer, United Way will embark on our next five year strategic programmatic direction that includes dismantling disparities in education through the creation of middle school to high school pipelines of support that combines the community school model with prevention science. Building a web of support systems will not only build resilient youth and ensure that they are on track to succeed through graduation but build stronger, more empowered communities.