ACROSS NEW HAMPSHIRE, families face an array of less-than-perfect choices as school resumes with the pandemic still in progress. Whether the approach is remote instruction, face-to-face learning, a hybrid model, or homeschooling, education is a tool to unlock opportunities for learners of every age. But many more factors are necessary to ensure that kids are prepared and equipped to learn. COVID-19 throws yet another roadblock onto the path for New Hampshire’s families.
Nationally and here in New Hampshire, we see mounting evidence that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted people of color and revealed inequities across systems, including education. In New Hampshire, the fourth-grade reading proficiency scores paint a concerning picture. Hispanic fourth-grade Granite Staters score lower than their White peers by 28 percentage points. Black fourth-graders in New Hampshire score lower by 19 percentage points.
These kids have the same potential and ability as their White peers. So why the stark disparities? For the same reason that outcomes are worse for people of color in the realms of poverty, infant mortality, access to health insurance, developmental screenings, neighborhood safety and school discipline. In a nutshell, COVID-19 shines a light on systemic racism and how it impacts health, education and the chance for every child to realize his or her full potential.
Inherent inequities in New Hampshire’s school funding system are also entrenched. An uneven and unfair funding structure is based on property tax. This formula is not unique to New Hampshire, and it emphasizes a long-rooted, historic pattern that preserves advantage for already-advantaged populations.
Manchester and Nashua are home to half of New Hampshire’s people of color. These same two school districts receive 20 to 25 percent less per student than the state average — in a time when these very same populations suffer the greatest health and economic impacts of the virus.
That’s not to say there aren’t bright spots and many innovations from which other school districts can learn. In Manchester, for instance, the school system has worked in tandem with the city’s emergency operations and a host of community partners, including churches, hospitals, pediatricians, youth organizations, mental health providers, and food service groups. Together, they are literally mapping the city to identify and respond to the greatest need. They are providing additional services and resources such as food and clothing, along with the necessary educational materials. These services benefit families from various socioeconomic levels who have lost jobs, have mouths to feed and rent to pay.
Both Manchester and Nashua have found ways to connect with families and students through trusted community leaders as they work to break through cultural and language barriers and to provide home visits and front-porch conversations.
Statewide, the Race & Equity in NH Series’ Education Workgroup is developing recommendations that include recruiting more teachers of color to reflect the student population, as well as online sharing tools so that school districts can learn from each other.
The digital divide creates a situation where families with internet access and digital tools have a better chance at employment and education. We need to ensure internet access is treated like a utility so that every child in New Hampshire can learn online. And we need more data so that we can respond to basic needs and take a collective, statewide approach to providing for them.
Despite all the near-term challenges of COVID-19, we cannot take our foot off the gas pedal as we move forward in addressing inequities. In fact, the time has never been more urgent to do so.
In the longer term, the state’s Commission to Study School Funding is working to produce legislative recommendations by the end of 2020. This, in tandem with strong public-private partnerships across the state, will serve our kids and families during these trying times and no doubt lead to lasting innovations in a post-pandemic New Hampshire.