Sept. 10, 2021
Returning to School: Equity and Inclusion Considerations for Students and Teachers
September in Canada is often associated with the return to school. The crisp fall air is approaching, and for some, new beginnings are offered through a new classroom, a new teacher, new friendships, and new opportunities. At later educational stages, some students embark on a post-secondary education where they may feel the rush of beginning a new career. For many, this time of year brings excitement.
With the COVID-19 pandemic lingering, many people enter yet another school year filled with angst and anxiety about the safety of students, teachers, and loved ones. How will social distancing, masking, and vaccination status monitoring be maintained and enforced? The media is full of parents, educators, and policy makers expressing their opinions and concerns.
Although there are benefits, sending children to school or attending school as a student or teacher during the COVID-19 pandemic comes with associated risk. What is now clear, however, is that the risks are greater for some when compared to others. We are all impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic no matter our geographical location, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disabilities, socio-economic status, or racial identity; yet we are not all impacted equally. Research from school closures and re-openings over the past year highlights that equity-deserving groups are often the people most impacted by these disruptions. For example, some minoritized groups have been disproportionately impacted by the lack of physical learning opportunities, social and emotional support available at schools, and extra services (e.g., school meals).1,2,3
As we embark on this next chapter of pandemic life, whether school attendance is in-person, online, or a hybrid of both, it is important to attend to the most vulnerable groups and their needs (both individual and structural) during this time of transition. For marginalized groups (e.g., those living in poverty, those from geographically remote areas or urban high-risk areas, those from ethnic minorities and Indigenous communities, immigrant and refugee students and teachers, 2SLGBTQIA+ students and teachers, those with disabilities, etc.), special attention must be given to prioritize equity and inclusion in re-opening strategies and learning delivery methods.
What can be done to support vulnerable students and teachers with the re-opening of schools?
With many schools adopting a hybrid or online approach to learning, it remains vital that virtual learning environments are made equitable.3 During school closures there was a strong focus on equal access to technology for remote learning and work (e.g., access to digital media devices as well as internet services), and this remains a priority. In addition, it will be important to also consider other ways to improve the quality of remote learning for equity-deserving groups. For example, allowing students or teachers to engage without video footage, adding closed captaining for those with hearing difficulties or limited wifi connection, and providing additional avenues to provide comments or feedback (speaking up can be more challenging in a virtual environment), to name a few.
Given the reported socio-economic impact of the pandemic on minoritized families,4 it will be important to provide inclusive and equitable access to extra services for vulnerable students and teachers. Examples of support may include the distribution of free school meals and hygiene kits, offering extra grants and financial support to students living in poverty, considering student loan waivers, and assisting with childcare to allow for return to work or school.5,6
Possibly one of the most important areas to target may be the assessment of student’s and teacher’s mental health. With the goal being to identify and assist students and teachers struggling in these challenging times, academic institutions would benefit from additional counselling for students or teachers, hiring of additional school nurses, psychologists, and specialized teachers, and measures for students or teachers in need of additional support (e.g., students or teachers who do not reengage, who do not return to school, or who were minimally engaged with schoolwork during the pandemic).5,6
Lastly, support is needed to ensure that all students and teachers have access to a safe physical environment at school. Support of this kind may involve improved air ventilation, increased hand sanitation and hygiene stations, and access to personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies.
Re-opening schools while ensuring an equitable distribution of resources will require a strong relationship between school boards, policy makers, students, parents, and teachers. While considering the inclusion challenges highlighted above, we can work together to build an education system that attends to the most vulnerable groups during this pandemic recovery phase.
- Christakis, D.A. (2020). School Reopening—The Pandemic Issue That Is Not Getting Its Due. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(10), 928.
- Dooley, D. G., Bandealy, A., & Tschudy, M. M. (2020). Low-Income Children and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the US. JAMA Pediatrics, 174(10), 922.
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO; 2020). Covid-19: A new layer to the challenge of education inclusion. In Global Education Monitoring Report 2020: Inclusion and Education: All Means All. UNESCO: Paris, France.
- Statistics Canada (2021). COVID-19 in Canada: A One-year Update on Social and Economic Impacts. Accessed September 8, 2021 from: https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/en/pub/11-631-x/11-631-x2021001-eng.pdf?st=ZU2iHgvL
- Reimers, F. and A. Schleicher (2020), Schooling disrupted, schooling rethought. How the Covid-19 pandemic is changing education. Accessed September 8, 2021 from: https://globaled.gse.harvard.edu/files/geii/files/education_continuity_v3.pdf
- The Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD; 2020). The Impact of COVID-19 on student equity and inclusion. Accessed September 8, 2021 from: https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-student-equity-and-inclusion-supporting-vulnerable-students-during-school-closures-and-school-re-openings-d593b5c8/