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Back to School: Mask Mandates, Civil Rights, and Racial Disparities in Education

As COVID-19 cases have surged in recent weeks, governors of several states have been enacting policies that aim to disallow schools from imposing mask mandates. These rules go against guidance from the CDC, which has recommended that students and teachers wear masks universally in the classroom due in large part to the delta variant. In Florida, leaders have gone so far as to threaten to withhold pay from superintendents that do not abide by anti-mask policies. Unfortunately, these policies greatly interfere with the ability of school districts to keep students safe in the classroom, and has the potential to further widen racial disparities in education.


Students are entitled to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and discrimination based on color, race, or national origin is prohibited under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Under these laws, the federal government is prepared to intervene through civil rights investigations with the Office for Civil Rights to protect students’ rights. The Department of Education aims to mitigate discrimination against students that would be unable to attend school due to health concerns.

Unfortunately, these anti-mask policies are just another aspect of the growing setbacks experienced by students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students. Racial disparities in opportunities, resources, and outcomes in the public school system were prevalent pre-pandemic, and have only worsened due to COVID-19. Evidence has shown that the pandemic has had a negative impact on many students of color when it comes to their education, with the gap widening through Winter 2021.

“The nation’s most vulnerable students, namely students with disabilities, low-income students and students of color, have suffered the deepest setbacks since districts pivoted to remote learning in March 2020, and their disproportionate disengagement has long drawn concern from education leaders and civil rights watchdogs.” - The New York Times

Overall, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people and families of color. Of children that lost a parent during the pandemic, Black children accounted for 20% (while only making up 14% of children in the country). People of color (particularly Black and Latinx adults), have faced a disproportionate risk of contracting COVID-19, being hospitalized, and dying as a result of it. In addition to this, workers of color were also more likely to be employed in industries where businesses had to shut down, further impacting their income, resources, and potential for food insecurity.


Pre-pandemic, there were already significant resource disparities both in school and at home for students of color. On average, students of color are much more likely to attend poorly maintained schools with fewer resources (for example, a study in 2018 found that students of color were attending schools that received approximately 13% less in funding per student than schools that served the smallest quantity of students of color). On average, students of color also had access to fewer resources at home pre-pandemic, which only worsened for many families due to the job losses and financial strains that came with COVID-19.

In addition to resource disparities, students of color were already facing disparities in academic opportunities for success pre-pandemic due to a variety of factors, including lower overall expectations for achievement, teachers with less experience, and less rigorous coursework. Unfortunately, these gaps only worsened overall throughout the pandemic. Participation disparities were prevalent throughout the pandemic, with only 36% of Black students enrolled in in-person instruction full-time (compared to 58% of white students). Of those students that were virtual, many students of color faced technology barriers - according to a report by the Department of Education, almost of third of teachers in schools with a majority of Black students reported that students lacked the technology necessary for virtual instruction (while only 1 in 5 said the same in schools with less than 10% Black students). Policies that disallow schools from protecting their students could widen these disparities, as children of color require access to a safe in-person environment to begin catching up on lost instructional time.


Get to the point: As COVID-19 cases have surged in recent weeks, governors of several states have been enacting policies that aim to disallow schools from imposing mask mandates. These rules go against guidance from the CDC, which has recommended that students and teachers wear masks universally in the classroom due in large part to the delta variant. Gone unchecked, these anti-mask policies could greatly interfere with the ability of school districts to keep students safe in the classroom, and has the potential to further widen prevalent racial disparities in education (which have only worsened since the pandemic began).

Sources:

DOE Office for Civil Rights

The New York Times

AP News

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