Pandemic Highlights Pre-existing Inequities in Education

Arkansas teachers are adapting their approach to meet the various needs of their students.

There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges in education, but some of the issues aren’t new. Christhian Saavedra, a teacher at Rogers Heritage High School, says the public health crisis is simply highlighting problems and inequities that were already there.

“A lot of the issues that we’re seeing now I think they’ve been issues, they’ve been lacking,” Saavedra says. “It’s just they haven’t been brought up to the forefront because there wasn’t a need or there was always a way to mask certain things.”

One of those issues is a lack of access to reliable internet. In addition to teaching Spanish, Saavedra coaches soccer and at the beginning of the pandemic, he joined other coaches in delivering Chromebooks to students for remote learning. Many parents said they couldn’t accept the devices because they didn’t have internet access or their children did not have transportation to a place where they could get online. 

“Access to internet, I think that shouldn’t be something that’s sold,” Saavedra says. “I think that’s something that should be just a given if we expect kids to work at home.”

More than 20 percent of Arkansans lack access to a wired broadband connection capable of 25 Mbps speeds or faster, according to a report from the company Broadband Now. In August 2019, Gov. Asa Hutchinson launched the Arkansas Rural Connect program to increase broadband access in rural communities. The program awards grants to municipalities and internet service providers partnering on expansion projects and in 2020, the Arkansas Department of Commerce received $19.3 million in CARES Act funding to support these grants.

To specifically address the needs of students learning remotely, in July 2020, the governor allocated $10 million to purchase Wi-Fi access points and data plans as part of a partnership with companies like AT&T and T-Mobile. The initiative allowed the state to buy thousands of devices for students to use free of charge. 

While this effort helped address inequity in internet access, remote learning still has its challenges. For example, while parents may be available to help their children with homework, they may be unable to provide assistance because they are unfamiliar with the technology.

“If we’ve struggled to learn all these new platforms, how about parents that have never had to deal with them,” Saavedra says. “I think we have this crazy assumption that because people have social media, they’re good with technology.”  

Shanta Calhoun teaches business and computer science courses at Pine Bluff High School and agrees the pandemic has put a spotlight on what’s been lacking in education. There’s a “reading deficit” at Calhoun’s school where she says some high school students are reading at an elementary level. In instances where students do have access to internet at home, underlying literacy issues can complicate their remote learning. 

“The biggest thing is our kids’ reading level, especially when we’re sending them home with online work,” Calhoun says. “If you can’t read and comprehend what you’re supposed to be doing, you’re not going to be successful.”

Nearly 14 percent of Arkansans 16 and older lack basic literacy skills, according to the Adult Learning Alliance of Arkansas

Illustration of supportive, fearless teacher
By artist Lin Doyle | Reimagine Arkansas project

Teachers have had to be adaptable during this strange time in education, but Calhoun says “giving a student too much room is detrimental.” Finding that balance between maintaining a rigorous curriculum and providing flexibility to meet students where they are has been difficult, especially when all these challenges can lead to frustrated students who give up on learning altogether. Nanette Patiño is a 27-year veteran educator teaching Spanish at Central High School in Little Rock and she says education is difficult when students don’t have a positive attitude. 

“One thing is I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed with my class, and the second option is I don’t care about this class,” Patiño says. “That’s two totally different mentalities and I have to address it in two different ways.” 

Educators like Patiño are working with students in different ways because they recognize students are dealing with a lot right now. Traditional challenges in learning new material are being complicated by learning new technology as well as added responsibilities at homes. For example, some students have parents who’ve lost their jobs because of the pandemic and now they are expected to help care for their siblings or find employment themselves. Teachers need to be understanding of these types of circumstances, Patiño says.

“If we don’t make some accommodations for them, it can be a little bit more difficult than what they are already experiencing,” she says. “But I also believe that consistency and clear expectations are just as important.”

Even when providing accommodations, teachers are continuing to push students to do their best because this pandemic could have long-term, negative effects on education.

“I need for them to know that if their best is 75 percent of that class, then give me the best of that 75 percent and I don’t want to have anything less because when this is over, we can have a whole generation on the downslope and that is scary,” Patiño says.

While the long-term effects of the pandemic are still unknown, the Brookings Institution has conducted some initial research on students in third through eighth grade. A study released in December found in reading, on average, the achievement percentiles of students in fall 2020 were similar to those in the fall of 2019. However, in math, student achievement was lower than in 2019 and students showed less growth.

When considering the impact of the public health crisis on the education of future generations, teacher Christhian Saavedra says he is starting to see some things exposed in the United States that a lot of undeveloped countries have had to deal with. Until he was 13, Saavedra lived in El Salvador where he had to pay for education. 

“I almost didn’t go to third grade because I didn’t have the equivalent of $20 to sign up for the class,” he says. “And then you have to pay for uniforms because you got to wear uniforms every day.”

While public education is free in the U.S., access to that education has been complicated by the pandemic. Some families with a lower socioeconomic status can’t afford internet access or the electronic devices for remote learning when they’re not provided by a school district. These families also may not have reliable transportation to drive their children to a place with internet access. If they do, they may not have the time to take them because they’re working multiple jobs. 

Illustration of a broken mouse
By artist Andrew Brott |Reimagine Arkansas project

“We have so many kids that have been asked to do some things with the assumption that they have reliable internet, with the assumption that they have a way to deal with it,” Saavedra says. “And that’s something that, comparing it to a third world country — and I mean no disrespect to anybody that loves America — but that’s been an issue. It wasn’t because of the pandemic.”

While this is a difficult time, Nanette Patiño says “we got to keep with it” and she wants to make sure her students continue to learn life lessons like the importance of resiliency. 

“They learned that you care about them. They learned that even through trials and challenges, you can still persevere and be successful, and that success is measured in different ways at different times of your life,” she says.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.