COMMENTARY: Redefining learning for students of color in the age of COVID-19
SAMUEL ADEWUMI and OLUSHOLA ADEWUMI | 12/10/2020, midnight
Each year before this one, NYC schools administered the NYS assessments to elementary and middle school students in the areas of math, English Language Arts (ELA) and science. Each year, NYC schools would test high school students using the NYS Regents in English, math, and various other subjects. Each year the College Board would administer Advanced Placement (AP) exams and SAT’s to high school juniors and seniors. Each year––before this one––students of color would take these assessments and each year the results would point to the systematic under-education of students of color in our city.
Whether we analyze the percentage of level 3’s and 4’s on middle school math exams, or log the number of students who took AP BC Calculus, the numbers are grim. None of this is new information for interested parties in the education field. Inequities in education and life overall lie as the central question of why the data points to a systematic under-education of students of color in NYC. Numerous initiatives introduced within and outside of the NYC public school system have been created to address this complex issue. Some have been effective, but not enough to significantly move the needle for the 70% of the NYC student population identified as students of color. It is within this revolving wheel of under-education, inequity, and the need for systemic change and improvements that the ax of COVID has fallen.
COVID-19 has decimated our communities like no other plague before. It has greatly highlighted the consistent gross inequities in health, health care, environmental and living conditions, municipal and state services and unfortunately, education. We all know not just one but several members of our families, blocks, neighborhoods that were snatched away from us due to this pandemic. We have lost our elders, our youth, our pillars, our strength, and our wisdom in the middle of this wave. Mental illness and certain crimes have increased dramatically, while thousands have lost their source of income and find themselves unable to take care of their children and families. It is within this backdrop that we find ourselves again focused on the education of our children.
This summer and fall, a group of talented and committed African Americans, experts representing academia, community based organizations (CBOs), and other various institutions convened to address and propose solutions to the various issues affecting the academic attainment of Black students. The group created The Blueprint, a proposal which addresses a wide gamut of issues including:
1) Leadership––educational leadership from district to school;
2) Child Development––understanding brain theory and the impact of trauma on child development;
3) High-Quality Curriculum––cultural and social curricula and their ability to effectively prepare our children for life;
4) High-Quality Assessments––their creation, biases and relevance;
5) Black History––its centrality to world and United States history; and
6) Teacher Quality––teacher training, mastery, and delivery of content as well as the ability to connect to the world of students.
The group understands that its recommendations are far reaching but has purposely created their proposal in such a manner, knowing that if its recommendations are adopted and implemented the educational attainment of all students throughout the state would be greatly transformed.
The point of this piece is not to look at institutional solutions to all that we face, even though it is a given that institutions are part of the problem. We in no way desire any less pressure on federal, state, and city officials to meet the mandates that guarantee a quality education to our children. We join with those who ask for answers from these same officials on how they plan to “catch our students back up” to where they need to be. “When will the bridge programs be established?” “What form of remediation will occur on Saturdays or the summer?” are valid questions that should be asked and answered. But for the purpose of this piece, the question we look to answer is that given the historical realities of education in our communities and given the devastation that COVID-19 has caused in our communities and the resulting instability and inconsistencies in our children’s access to quality education, what do we do to mitigate its impact on our children? How do we ensure that they will have the tools to successfully navigate the post-COVID world?
As parents, I believe we need to answer these questions individually and collectively. I believe the answer lies within the concept of community and our ability to utilize the resources available to us, some already established and some that we need to create. We also need to move forward with the acknowledgment that education, as we know it is being redefined right in front of our eyes and technology will be an essential component to it, even post COVID-19. Knowing this we need to ensure that we have proper access to technology via wireless connectivity and laptops and pads, not phones. This is an area where we require and demand government and institutional support to our under-served communities. City officials and council members should look to support their communities in providing free wideband in the hardest-hit economic centers of the city. Broadband access in Brownsville should be equitable to broadband access in all other parts of NYC. Students should have a personal device wherein they can access the internet for educational activities. This implies a device that will allow them to write papers, create programs, produce presentations, etc.
As school closures became a reality in March, the concept of learning pods came into the spotlight. Pods are small groups of the same or similar school-aged children that meet either in person or virtually and are guided by a subject matter expert/tutor/teaching professional/member of the many community-based organizations or other family resources. These guided study groups provide students with community, social interaction, and an educational resource to help strengthen skills and reinforce concepts as needed. We can form pods with our children, their same-grade cousins, their classmates, etc. Providing guided study once or twice a week for one to two hours in the core subjects of math and English Language Arts may be enough to provide children with the core supplementary enrichment they need. Learning resources for every grade level can be found online, many in digital format, and should be common core aligned. Common core alignment ensures that students are learning the specific skill or concept in the appropriate grade level. Printed versions of these resources can be made available if there is a concern for digital screen overexposure. We can create learning pods for our children by reaching out to other families and using our networks to access providers. With the epidemic on the rise, I advocate for virtual pods as opposed to there being in person.
We can also look at other ways of learning/teaching. Flipping the roles, where students teach you what they know is a great way of empowering your child but also assessing their strength and weaknesses. Educational games abound and allow you to help them remember concepts in a fun and engaging way. Take virtual tours of the Cloisters, zoos, museums to reinforce science and history. Organize your living space into various types of learning centers if possible to create a sense of movement and prioritization. This can also be done using the days of the week (Monday is Math, Tuesday is History, etc.)
Many of the organizations that we sent our children to for academic enrichment or mentoring have pivoted to offer their same services online. Educational enrichment companies are now virtual and offer classes, pods, one-on-one tutoring, and other family-based support services. Mentoring organizations also now provide their services online. Dance, yoga, physical fitness, and other activities have also pivoted online. We can continue to seek out these support services and offer them within the safety of our homes. We need to develop a database of these services, organizations, and companies to connect our families with the services they require.
Finally, we recognize the stress of this pandemic and the undue pressure it puts on our families. We are home more, our children are home extensively and the natural releases we normally find outside are generally not available to us. Holistic practices provide us flexibility in how we intervene and show up for ourselves. A holistic approach to our condition requires us to address issues of our own and our children’s mental health and state of well-being. Thus we can use this time to create new paradigms between us and our children that will mutually support our growth and development as sustainable families. More specifically, families can engage in mindfulness activities that stress the importance of being present in the moment. Family walks in the park or other open space, provide exercise and access to fresh air. Deep breathing exercises, gentle stretching activities help decrease the stress and anxiety that is inevitable in this pandemic. Virtual play dates allow them to catch up with friends and family in a safe environment. A return to nightly family time for prayer, family discussions, and planning are all positive ways of engaging our extra time together. Families can utilize creative or journal writing to help with expressing their thoughts and feelings, while also strengthening their ability to communicate. Our children and families need to engage in activities that will support their physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental health, necessary platforms as they attempt to engage in the learning process.
We lost my dear brother and leader of our family, Jonathan Adewumi, due to COVID-19 this April. There were times where we could not move and didn’t want to. Our family kept wondering when the bad dream would end, but it never did. I would never suggest that anyone dealing with this level of pain, do more than find the strength to keep going, to find hope and life again. But this is our reality, this is the time we find ourselves within––it is the hand we have been dealt. It was the children in our CAS Prep program that allowed me to find life again, to find purpose again. At the end of the day, this pandemic will end, but its devastation will still be with us. We owe it to our children to find the strength to do what we can to minimize its effect on them. As our ancestors have said, it’s in our hands. It has always been. It is now for us to decide what we do for our gifts, our future, our children.
Stacked Yoga, Healhaus, Neon Photography, Dwanna Smallwood Dance Center, The Come Up (Youtube), Ladydoves.org, Big Apple Leadership Academy for the Arts, facebook/healthyfamilies4all
Adelaide Sanford Institute (ASI), casprep.org, digitalgirlinc.org, swishunited.org, upchieve.org, Admission Squad
Mental Health Resources:
mbscomplete.com, therapyforblackgirls.com, therapyforblackmen.org, blacktherapistnetwork.com, blacktherapistrock.com,
NY Times free digital subscriptions, 3M virtual labs, Bridge St Development Corp, MoMath,
Salvador Dali Museum, NASA, The Cloisters, Museum of Natural History