Ed Department Spotlights ‘Deep Cracks’ in the Nation’s Schools with New Report, Upcoming Equity Summit

In April, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona visited Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, where he spoke with students. (Pete Bannan / MediaNews Group / Daily Times / Getty Images)

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The U.S. Department of Education will hold a virtual summit on June 22 — the first in a series of events focused on addressing the inequitable impact of the pandemic on students of color and other high-need groups.

Setting the stage for the conversation, the department’s Office for Civil Rights released a report Wednesday, summarizing what it calls a “developing story” of how the shift to remote learning and the public health crisis widened disparities in students’ access to a quality education.

Drawing on existing surveys, research and assessment data, the report recapped how vulnerable groups, including English learners, students with disabilities and LGBTQ students, faced significant barriers to learning before the pandemic, only to be further cut off from the support they needed during school closures. The report comes the same week as a public hearing on Title IX and follows last week’s announcement that the Office for Civil Rights will accept public comments on discrimination in school discipline, offering further evidence that an arm of the department that was downsized during the previous administration is leading much of the agenda so far under Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

The department also released guidance for how states and districts can implement the “maintenance of equity” provision of the American Rescue Plan, which is intended to prevent budget and staffing cuts at high-poverty schools.

The upcoming summit, guidance and report comply with an executive order President Joe Biden issued when he took office, directing federal agencies to examine the challenges facing underserved communities.

Offering 11 observations of the pandemic’s impact on students, the report noted “worrisome signs” that academic performance has fallen below per-pandemic levels, that nearly all students have experienced mental health challenges and that gay, lesbian and transgender students have been at increased risk of isolation, harassment or abuse.

“Those who went into the pandemic with the fewest opportunities are at risk of leaving with even less,” the report said.

The event later this month will focus on how students can influence the schools they attend, continuing Cardona’s emphasis on student voice. He’s met with students during school visits, featured students during his school reopening summit in March and held a roundtable discussion with homeless youth in April.

Other speakers at the summit will include Deputy Secretary Cindy Marten, Pedro Noguera, dean of education at the University of Southern California, and Olivia Carter, the 2021 School Counselor of the Year.

The report out Wednesday stressed the role of civil rights protections for students as they recover from the pandemic. Schools, for example, must enroll homeless students without requiring proof of residency documents and ensure English learners receive language instruction and support.

The report noted that prior to the pandemic, students of color and students with disabilities were more likely to face suspension, expulsion and other harsh discipline practices. Now, the hardship, grief and loss some students have experienced may contribute to behavior challenges once they return to school full time. Schools, as a result, will have a greater need for educators and other specialists who understand how to work with students who have experienced trauma, according to the report.

The pandemic revealed “deep cracks in the foundation” of the nation’s schools, the report said. “We have an extraordinary opportunity to move forward with full awareness of these cracks and recognition of the essential need to address and repair them.”

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