In the United States, data reveal that Black Americans are contracting and dying from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, at rates that double, and sometimes triple their representation across various states. In Illinois, 43% of people who have died are African-American, although the race makes up only 15% of the population. In Louisiana, 70% of the state’s coronavirus deaths were Black Americans in a state with a 32% population of Black Americans. Early news reports of the disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases and fatalities has resulted in a nationwide call for the release of disaggregated racial data. However, these early numbers elucidate the historical systemic and institutional disparities affecting Black communities. Further, these disparities significantly affect Black children and their development.
Systemic Disparities in the Black Population
Explanations for the disparities in COVID-19 cases and fatalities include financial and health inequities that affect Black Americans. Those at the bottom of the financial brackets in the U.S. are more likely to be affected by crises. Black Americans are more likely to have unstable jobs and to be laid off by their jobs before their White peers. They are overrepresented in low-paying jobs, which makes saving close to impossible, leaving no safety net for lost jobs. Black Americans are also more likely to be uninsured for many reasons (i.e., part-time employment, high cost of insurance), and therefore, unable to afford co-pays, testing, and treatment. Further, the financial support of not only the nuclear family but also the extended family is often seen in the Black community. All of this, stems from a long history of structural racism, including redlining, mass incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Black Americans are also overrepresented in health conditions that make individuals more vulnerable to COVID-19. Asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease are high in the Black community, and each are risk factors for COVID-19 fatality. These diseases are often overrepresented in the Black community due to the dangerous air quality in their cities, lead in their paint and water, and lack of access to nutritious food due to financial strain. The health issues mentioned are partially due to lack of healthcare and fewer visits to a primary care doctor. Even when Black Americans present to a doctor, their health conditions are often taken less seriously and overlooked.
When the racial wealth gap is reduced, the academic achievement gap can be better managed. The White-Black achievement gap is as high as roughly 1.5 years difference in some states. Achievement gaps are directly related to and stem from the structural and systemic racism described earlier. With schools moving to an online format, there will be continued difficulty transitioning to this format for some families.
While Black Americans are working essential jobs to support the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, many factors will continue to contribute to the inequity of education for Black Americans. Stress due to the existence of COVID-19, including the worry of contracting the virus, worry, loss of jobs and income, stress of family members contracting the virus, and grief from losing family members can tax mental capacity and cognitive functioning. Black Americans disproportionately represented during COVID-19 will also bear the brunt of these stress reactions, which will inevitably impact their ability to teach their children. Studies have shown the relationship between stress and cognitive function. Even when controlling for factors such as age, education, and depressive symptoms, increased stress impacted cognitive performance.
As many schools transitioned to virtual learning, many home environments were not prepared or able to provide a comparable learning environment for children. Even if a parent can stay home and assist in educating their children during the pandemic, there are necessary items for its success. Only 66% of Black households in the U.S. had home broadband service in 2019. Only 45% of Black Americans owned a desktop or laptop computer in 2015. Without access to the internet or a computer, Black parents are at a disadvantage in educating their children.
Along with the possible decline in progress in vulnerable students from moving to this online format, it is also essential to consider the impending summer break. Research shows vulnerable populations are susceptible to losing academic gains, (summer slide) over the summer. Additionally, students who do not have access to continued learning over the summer are at risk to maintain the achievement gaps.
Summary and Recommendations
Communities should be concerned about the negative consequences this period of stay-at-home orders related to COVID-19 is having on children’s educational attainment. Schools can expect higher levels of Black children represented in special education when schools reopen in the fall. More Black children will be likely to receive lower test scores than their same-aged White peers upon return to in-person learning. The importance of considering the timing of learning disability evaluations is high.
Intentional and consistent use of Response to Intervention (RTI) will be necessary. RTI assists in guiding decision making regarding general and special education. Currently, there are no specific statements regarding RTI as a targeted intervention for the Black-White achievement gap. However, the program is an equity-oriented program that could reduce the overidentification of Black students.
Black students are at critical risk for overidentification in the special education system. The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted and could increase these risks for Black students. Through addressing the systemic inequities that result in the overidentification, the achievement gap can lessen.
Bre-Ann Slay is a doctoral student at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Professional Psychology.