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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

School Leaders Need Our Help Providing Equitable Education

students line up to greet their teacher and enter building, physically distanced and wearing masks

students line up to greet their teacher and enter building, physically distanced and wearing masks

Ann Skeet

Associated Press/Rick Bowmer

Ann Skeet is the senior director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are her own.

A U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey taken weekly for 90 days since April 2020 measured the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Changes to K-12 education affected at least twice as many households than did any other impact: loss in employment income, expected loss in income, food scarcity, delayed medical care, and housing insecurity.

Even if you don’t have school age children, the survey provides context for why the start of the school year is a big deal. The chances are virtually 100% that either your employees, your health care providers, elected officials, essential workers, your loved ones, or neighbors are being impacted by the changes to schooling.

Educated citizens are a great example of a public good. We all benefit from having an equal and complete understanding of how our country works and an educated populace. Even without a pandemic, effective education should be top of mind for everyone.

With a global pandemic, and against the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, issues of fairness and justice are in even sharper relief. School superintendents must now determine how to equip students equally when they do not have equal access to resources, yet districts are still legally bound by formulas that drive their budgets and spending per student.

Perhaps leaders should receive a failing grade on coronavirus preparedness. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just 46% of all K-12 schools, public and private, had written plans for pandemic disease, compared to 94% with plans for natural disasters, and similar percentages for active shooters and bomb threats. This speaks to the myriad pressures educational leaders face as inequity grows and the political landscape is changing.

If, how, and when we bring students back to classrooms in person is as polarized a discussion as any we are having right now. School board officials, most of whom are elected and thus hyper aware of local politics, must consider whether to make decisions based on what they consider fair and equitable ways to balance the needs of individuals and society for the greater good, even when local constituents may make other demands.

The superintendent’s role in normal times is one of multi-stakeholder collaboration. One must anticipate and meet the needs of students, parents, teachers, administrators, school boards, employers, taxpayers, and legislators. Now, they must balance competing needs and rights of those stakeholders—quality education for children, health and safety for all at a minimum—along with even access to resources for the students, regardless of where the students live and what their financial, medical, or learning challenges might be.

We face a choice between two bad options—sending school-age children to school to learn in person, or keeping them home—in the context of ongoing educational equity issues. Further, the diversity of school teachers and educational leaders does not reflect the student population in the United States, where 80% of the teachers are white, but half the students are not. School boards are also much whiter and more affluent than the public school student body. The relative lack of preparation, the scope of the problem, the competing needs of stakeholders, and the political context that govern education for the majority of students present a final-exam-worthy set of ethical dilemmas.

Superintendents and the school boards bear unique responsibilities for marginalized pupil populations: those with disabilities of all kinds, students in the families of migrant workers, those in the foster care system. The rights of these students are especially at risk since the usual, yet unique, support they receive in a typical school year is now suspended or altered in ways that cannot meet their needs. Add to the list students whose families are essential workers for the duration of this pandemic. What priority should we give those students for their safety and learning while their parents are taking care of us?

Several lenses of decision making can help superintendents and school boards: those that explore well-being for the most people possible; examine the rights of each person; consider fair process and just outcomes; and promote the common good. Everyone’s health and safety are affected by the decision to send kids to school or teach them from home, and many districts have decided against in-school learning. Education leaders have a responsibility to prepare for distance learning now and for future, similar crises.

As parents pull together learning “micropods” to form community during distance learning, school districts must also deal with matters of exclusion, often relegated to the playground. Ideally, school superintendents focus on vision, mission, strategy, preparation, and infrastructure, but now they must concern themselves with the social, emotional, and inclusion skills of parents. The school year cadence has always meant that changes made today might not enhance learning outcomes until some point in the future, so parents regularly consider what they can do to support their children in the meantime. Right now, that takes on more urgency.

Consider three choices you can make:

  1. Balance what you need for your student with the needs of your neighborhood. If you’re in a position to study with other students or provide additional resources for your family, match those with contributions to community efforts for vulnerable students.
  2. If possible, fund the efforts to forge public-private solutions to allocate resources more fairly. There are at least efforts locally, one a fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and another a partnership between the Taproot Foundation and companies like Genentech, Salesforce, IBM, Cruise, and Blue Shield of California to match pro bono resources to K-12 education needs.
  3. Commit to longer-term engagement with public education challenges like universal internet access, providing access to enrichment opportunities for students, and attracting and retaining educators. Even if you don’t have a student in the public school system, engage in the districts closet to you. Attend their meetings, read their minutes, lobby your legislator for the policy changes you feel will be beneficial.

After choosing how best to act, be intentional about reflecting on those choices and their effectiveness. That will get you a gold star, and some best practices, for supporting education with ethics during this pandemic.

Aug 25, 2020