Closing schools is a civil rights problem – federal funding should be at stake

Closing schools is a civil rights problem – federal funding should be at stake

We are quickly approaching the one-year mark since Governor Wolf first closed schools back on March 13, 2020. Depending on where you live in the state, especially in low-income communities, your child still may not be attending school in-person.

There are federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and age in programs and activities that receive federal funds from the Department of Education. However, there is no equal protection for discrimination based on geographic location. Considering the disastrous effects a lack of in-person schooling is proving to have on children, it may be time for the department’s Office of Civil Rights to add it to their list of reasons to deny federal funding.

Locally, the reality of location-based education discrimination has been vivid. For example, if a family is fortunate enough to live in Bucks county, they’ve likely had the opportunity to be back in school full time since the start of the school year. But for families living in Delaware and Chester counties, the most parents could hope for was a hybrid model that started in the late fall.

Considering the disastrous effects a lack of in-person schooling is proving to have on children, it may be time for the department’s Office of Civil Rights to add it to their list of reasons to deny federal funding.

Meanwhile, in Montgomery County, there are even more disparities among school districts. Souderton School District, for example, has been open five-days per week since the start of the school year, but Wissahickon School District has brought only elementary students back full time.  All Montgomery Districts offered sports to students except for one: Norristown Area School District.  Norristown serves the highest number of disadvantaged students in the county and has not been open for in-person instruction or sports for a single day since March 13, 2020.

And if you are unlucky enough to live in a Philadelphia zip code, your only hope for in-person instruction has been a private or parochial school.

As our region has proven, the zip codes where our most vulnerable students live are curiously the ones that are not open for in-person instruction. Most major media sources across the country have stated that children need to be back in school, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. Article after article describe not just the academic losses, but the increase of child abuse, substance abuse, and serious and significant mental health issues. And as Avi Wolfman-Arendt of WHYY reported earlier this month, Philadelphia’s youngest students are the ones falling behind the most.      

As our region has proven, the zip codes where our most vulnerable students live are curiously the ones that are not open for in-person instruction.

At a time when social justice and equity have become top-of-mind, it is unconscionable, bordering on criminal, to deny these students an in-person instruction. Especially considering many of these families do not have the same resources as others to pay for private school, tutoring or learning pods. Add that to lack of internet or dedicated devices for school, and many children may never catch up academically. They’ll be at a disadvantage compared to their peers who are fortunate enough to live in states and municipalities with political leaders who prioritize education and the emotional well-being of children.

High school seniors who reside in Norristown and Philadelphia zip codes will be hard pressed to compete for spots in college with students who’ve been learning in-person. Academic scholarships will undoubtedly go to students who have had the benefit of a brick-and-mortar school experience. Those hoping for sports scholarships will not be seen by coaches. The long-term consequences of these decisions are far-reaching and will adversely impact low-income and minority students.

At a time when social justice and equity have become top-of-mind, it is unconscionable, bordering on criminal, to deny these students an in-person instruction.

Despite these facts, many districts remain obstinately against reopening. Norristown recently signaled that children might not return to full-time in-person instruction until 2023. Upper Darby School District is considering maintaining a hybrid model for high school students permanently.

Such unjustifiable disparities require us to consider that discrimination by zip code is a real issue.  No school district in the country should receive federal funds if they are unwilling to offer a five full day in-person instructional model for its students. The time has long passed to get our children back in the classroom.

Beth Ann Rosica, Ph.D., a parent in the West Chester Area School District and an advocate for educationally disadvantaged students across the country has a private consulting business in the Education and Human Services field.