By Jared D. Childress | Special to the OBSERVER
Ayala was in second grade when her elementary school suddenly closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Ayala, who attends school in the Elk Grove Unified School District (EGUSD), abruptly transitioned to distance learning.
Ayala’s mother, Audri Smith, is an essential worker who worked from home before the pandemic as a medical patient coordinator.
While remote work removed the financial burden of child care, Smith, 33, faced other challenges in assisting her daughter with course material that’s taught differently from when she was in school.
“It was stressful for Ayala,” Smith said. “There were days when she cried because of the way I was explaining something to her. I can only explain it the way I was taught; I don’t know Common Core.”
The Common Core State Standards, adopted by California in 2010, are among several recent changes to instruction in public education.
Smith enrolled Ayala in tutoring for math and English to prevent her from falling behind.
“If you are good at math and English, that’ll translate over all areas. That’s why I enrolled her in those subjects,” Smith said. “It helped but she was still a little behind. Speaking with teachers, I’ve found that a lot of students are behind.”
Smith’s focus on math and English is backed by studies that reveal Black children are on average nine months behind in math and seven months behind in reading when entering elementary school, as seen in a 2020 report by National Institute for Early Education Research.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affects the Black community, threatens to widen an already robust achievement gap.
At the end of the 2020-21 school year, California graduation rates for Black students dropped by 4.3 percentage points. Additionally, a recent article by EdSource reveals that 2021 state standardized test scores show a drop in pass rates for Black students statewide when compared to the 2018-19 school year, falling 9% in math and 7% in English.
While state education officials caution that the number of students who took the tests last year was much smaller than previous years, test scores for Black students in Sacramento County provide local evidence of statewide decline.
After trending upward in recent years, EGUSD 2021 scores show a drop in pass rates for Black students, falling .76% in math and 1.91% in English.
Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) 2021 pass rates for Black students remain undisclosed due to low participation — 10 or fewer Black students took the 2021 standardized tests.
SOURCE: CAASPP website
Ursula DeWitt, a parent organizer with parent-centered community organization Black Parallel School Board (BPSB), which has supported Black parents and students in Sacramento County since 2008, understands this educational inequity as a lack of opportunity and resources.
“At BPSB we say ‘opportunity gap’ because we believe that all children can achieve if given the opportunity,” said DeWitt, 51. “We talked about the opportunity gap before the pandemic and now things are even worse.”
A recent report by the Census Bureau reveals just how bad it has gotten. Black households have been hit harder by the pandemic when compared to their white counterparts — even when accounting for pre-pandemic socioeconomic disparities.
BPSB, which works closely with SCUSD but also makes its’ resources available to all Sacramento county parents, were first-responders in supporting Black families in the area through their April 2020 list of demands which pushed districts to provide computers, internet, and other resources.
The demands were based on the needs of Black families, many of whom face increased risk with heads of household being essential workers.
A report by Urban Institute shows that in 2018 Blacks were overrepresented nationally in essential jobs, with 33% of the Black workforce being in essential positions that required them to work in person and close to others.
GRAPH SOURCE: URBAN INSTITUTE
“We thought about parents who may not be well-off and parents who are essential workers,” DeWitt said. “A lot of Black parents are essential workers where increased exposure becomes unavoidable.”
COVID exposure was unavoidable for essential worker and single-mother-of-three Baindu Kpaka, 35, whose sons are enrolled in EGUSD schools. Kpaka is a certified nurse assistant who has worked the night shift in the COVID ICU since spring 2020.
Kpaka, who is the sole provider for her boys, feared for the safety of her children.
“I was scared as hell every day I went to work. I would constantly pray for the Lord to protect my family and keep us safe,” Kpaka said. “When I got home, I wouldn’t touch or interact with my kids until I showered and changed clothes.”
After working long nights, Kpaka was expected to oversee her sons’ distance learning.
“Having to come home and make sure they were (logged in for distance learning) was hard,” Kpaka said. “There were times they wouldn’t attend, and I’d have to explain to teachers that I can only make sure they are joining class when I’m awake.”
Black students in California had the highest rate of chronic absenteeism — 34.6% — in October 2021, according to a report by School Innovations and Achievement, more than double the October 2019 rate of 15.9%.
GRAPH SOURCE: SCHOOL INNOVATIONS & ACHIEVEMENT
While Kpaka reported a drop in her sons’ academic performance during distance learning, she has seen their grades recover since resuming in-person instruction this past fall. The return to in-person instruction presented a new set of challenges for parents such as Terry Moore, 55, who strives to be an equal partner in his daughters’ EGUSD education.
His youngest daughter Taylor, 6, attended pre-K virtually during the shutdown. Now that she’s attending kindergarten in person, new safety precautions distance him from her education.
“I’ve not had the opportunity to visit the classroom and observe how the class is conducted. It’s really different but I understand why this is needed,” said Moore, a single father who co-parents his two daughters with their mother. “It’s almost like once I let go of my daughter’s hand in the morning, I’m completely detached from her until after school.”
Moore’s flexible work schedule as the director of adult services for parent education at the Center for Fathers and Families, allowed him to be home with his daughters during school closures. He used distance learning as an opportunity to strengthen their relationship.
“If I had a job where I couldn’t be home with them, it would’ve probably been stressful,” Moore said. “But I loved the bonding time I had with them during distance learning. I got to assist in my daughters’ education and I think parents are the most important educators in our children’s lives.”
To maintain open communication between parents and schools, EGUSD has done district-level outreach including individual phone calls to parents.
EGUSD Director of Communications Xanthi Soriano encourages families to learn about additional resources by contacting the district’s family and community engagement department.
“We hope that parents please contact us if they aren’t getting our information,” Soriano said. “We will work with their school or through our offices to provide support.”
December and January saw a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly-contagious Omicron variant. Amidst that surge, Sacramento County schools followed the direction of healthcare professionals and elected officials.
“Our goal is to keep all schools open to in-person learning,” Soriano said. “We work closely with public health officials on mitigation strategies to prevent our schools from closing.”
While districts work to circumvent recent pandemic-related learning loss, DeWitt, the parent organizer, points to pre-pandemic educational inequity as a target for systemic change to fully protect Black families from the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 and the widening opportunity gap.
“As parents, we can’t base our plans on what the schools are doing,’” DeWitt said. “As it stands now, we need something totally different when it comes to education. This is the opportunity for change.”