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Thought Leadership Guardians of Atlanta’s Future

Pandemic Unearths Gaps in Education, Equality

Communities in Schools Atlanta

By Frank Brown, Esq.

Parents, teachers, students, faculty, and support staff, we’ve officially survived our first online-only semester of learning. But, what was the cost of such a dramatic shift for educators and pupils alike? 

Closing the academic achievement gap is an incredible task in ordinary circumstances. A global pandemic disproportionately killing Black Americans has made it all the more challenging.  

COVID-19 forced school districts to move to home-based learning. Like with every aspect of society it showed the impact and severity of the racial and economic disparities of the students we serve. At Communities in Schools of Atlanta, we found students lacking adequate technology resources to complete their schoolwork. Black and Latinx students are often forced to rely on their smartphones for internet access and to type up assignments. 

Thanks to generous donors we have provided nearly $90,000 in emergency relief for families, the bulk of which went to housing assistance. Our dedicated staff has served 24,607 families by providing hygiene kits, meals, one-on-one student tutoring, and even delivering laptops and tablets for students in need. Internet Service Providers have also stepped up to the plate to provide free internet access. It should now be clear that reliable internet access is on par with water and electricity as fundamental needs for families and individuals. 

Even still, internet access and technology alone are not enough to replicate the academic environment students need to thrive. 

In a recent New York Times article citing research from McKinsey & Company, “When all of the impacts are taken into account, the average student could fall seven months behind academically, while black and Hispanic students could experience even greater learning losses, equivalent to 10 months for black children and nine months for [Latinx].”

Make no mistake, students know this past semester was a broad academic failure. 

Even our CIS of Atlanta alumni who came home early from college struggled to learn in the absence of a rigorous academic environment where peers, professors, and teachers’ assistants are readily available to coach students through complex concepts. 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos previously granted standardized testing waivers for the 2019-2020 school year due to the unexpected need for distance-based learning. Georgia has just made news as the first state to request federal permission to also suspend standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year. In a statement, state leaders noted the schools will likely focus on “remediation, growth, and the safety of students” when classes resume in just a few weeks.

Our collective inability to provide a successful learning environment amidst an ongoing pandemic will rob these children of their future and society of the skills they need to change the status quo. 

Keep in mind this is all happening in the backdrop of a national reckoning of systemic racism. Black students, especially males, are grieving the loss of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and those whose names we do not know. I have cried with my two Black boys as I have had to explain that no matter our level of education or societal status, we can all succumb to such a horrible fate at the hands of those who took an oath to protect and serve. 

As a leader of an organization that was created to instill hope in young people, helping them get an education to change the trajectory of their lives, it’s hard to muster up the strength to adamantly tell them everything will be okay and that their lives really do matter. Instead of focusing on their achievements and important milestones, we as responsible mentors are having discussions about the “life codes” of survival that only apply to Black America. It’s not fair, but it is necessary.

In the words of civil rights powerhouse Fannie Lou Hamer, “You don’t run away from problems – you just face them.” 

We must heed Hamer’s call. 

It is clear COVID-19 will be here for many more months, threatening to impact the entirety of the upcoming academic year. Education leaders and organizations must come together and identify improvements to ensure our students do not fall further behind and are able to overcome the challenges faced during the past few months. Failure to do so is an abdication of leadership. Involve students, and parents, in the process to ensure the new systems actually meet their needs. It’s their future that’s at stake. 

Unfortunately, the stark reality is employers, institutions of higher learning, and American society broadly will not excuse these students for not knowing principles they should have mastered in school. Nor will they be excused for struggling to cope with the scars of a young life marked by video after video of racial injustice. 

As an Atlantan, ask yourself how you can personally help solve the problems facing our city. Maybe that looks like leading with love rather than fear, having an honest conversation with someone whose world experience is different from yours, tutoring a Black student, or speaking up when someone exhibits racist and classist behavior – even if it takes place in a private conversation. 

This is no time to sit on the sidelines. The soul of America and the souls of Black and brown youth are on the line.

Caption: Site Coordinator Jarrett Smith at S.L. Lewis Elementary School in Fulton County, compiling 40 laptops for his caseload students. In an email to staff, Smith noted how beautiful it was to see kids excited about receiving laptops so they can continue to learn.

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