Education

Gaps in educational opportunity are growing while students are out of the classroom because of the pandemic. Some community leaders say it shows the need to get students back into school buildings as soon as possible. For others, it’s more complicated.

Low-income, Black students, other students of color and students learning English experienced significant increases in failing grades early this school year, particularly in middle and high school, according to data obtained by WFPL News. In middle school nearly 60% of low-income students received a failing grade in the first six-week term of the fall, compared to 35% of their white, wealthier peers.

In high school, nearly 72% of English Language Learners (ELL) got a failing grade, compared to 46% of non-ELL students.

Parents and advocates say the gaps are growing because of the challenges these students face in participating in remote learning, or nontraditional instruction (NTI), which is how they’ve been attending classes for nearly a year. Many low-income parents can’t help their children with NTI because they are working, and can’t afford a tutor or fee-based learning hub. And many ELL and low-income students are working or taking on additional responsibilities due to parent job losses.

The Case For Reopening

Jefferson County Board of Education member James Craig has been the board’s most vocal proponent of allowing in-person sports and instruction.

He represents District 3, which includes many majority white, upper-income neighborhoods in the northeast section of Jefferson County — areas where higher shares of parents want to send their students back to the classroom in-person, according to a JCPS family survey. Black families were more likely than white families to say they want to keep their children in a virtual setting.

Craig wants to get students back into the classroom as soon as staff are fully vaccinated. That could be as early as March, assuming staff receive their second doses on schedule.

“I would be willing to open up our school buildings, even if it meant that we could only get our kids in for a single day. I honestly would,” Craig said.

He said he thinks educators will be in a better position to assess students’ academic and personal needs face-to-face.

Craig said the growing gaps between privileged and disadvantaged students are one of many reasons he’s eager for an in-person return.

“We made what we thought was the best health decision for our students and for our teachers,” he said of the decision to open virtually in August. “But it’s clear now that we are paying a price for that decision.”

The Risks Of Reopening

To District 6 board member Corrie Shull, reopening schools is not the solution to closing opportunity gaps or achievement gaps.

As a pastor at Burnett Avenue Baptist Church, he urges his members to stay vigilant about COVID precautions. Burnett Avenue Baptist is a historic Black church that had about 3,500 members before the pandemic. But many have died.

In a phone interview, Shull took a long pause to try to calculate the number of church members lost to COVID-19. He couldn’t.

“There have been scores of them, honestly,” Shull said. “There have been weeks where I have officiated three or four funerals in one week’s time.”

As the virus has become more widespread in Louisville, deaths and case numbers have evened out across racial groups. But in the beginning of the pandemic, the virus hit the city’s Black population harder than any other in deaths.

Shull experienced COVID-19’s toll on a community firsthand. The virus took people he knew. He delivered their eulogies and buried them. And now he supports their children and families through their grief.

“That does something to you,” he said.

It’s one reason Shull does not believe JCPS students should return to the classroom en masse.

Shull saw WFPL’s analysis showing Black, Latinx, low-income and immigrant students are struggling most with remote learning during the pandemic. There are many students from these groups in his South Louisville district near Churchill Downs and in Newburg. But Shull is unconvinced that the district can control the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms. And he is skeptical of those pushing for a return to school based on student achievement data, like grades

“It’s really hard to hear, for me, people who have never cared about student achievement talk about ‘We need to open up schools to fix the achievement, essentially, of Black students.’ Because those voices have never cared about Black achievement,” he said.

He noted that many of the most fervent back-to-school voices come from politically conservative groups that organized against a tax increase meant, in part, to improve outcomes for Black students.

Shull believes the district should expand access to free learning hubs to help low-income and struggling students. So far, those hubs serve just around 2% of JCPS students.

“Maybe we need to do more significant work around that to close the achievement gap,” he said.

In the meantime, Shull said it’s important to look at the bigger picture that “people are also attempting to survive a pandemic.”

JCPS teacher Maddie Shepard said she’s seen the grading data too, and that it’s no surprise.

“Everybody is aware the gaps are widening,” Shepard said. But Shepard, who is also the treasurer of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, the teachers’ union, said the district has to address safety concerns before students come back.

“I don’t think anyone will disagree that in-person learning is the best option,” she said. “Teachers would just like some reassurances about the safety of returning to that option.”

The district is eyeing the third week of March for a possible reopening, subject to approval by the school board. JCPS officials say they believe their plans can keep staff and students safe.

But many teachers say the school level plans lack detail. The union reached an agreement with the district over the weekend to include teacher input in the reopening planning for each school.

A town hall meeting on JCPS’ reopening plan is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. on the district’s YouTube page.

Explore our series about how disadvantaged JCPS students performed during NTI compared to their more-privileged peers at wfpl.org/distancelearning.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.