As school districts have shifted to at-home instruction in response to COVID-19, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated underlying, systemic inequities in K-12 education. The pandemic has created a major disruption in the delivery of all education and a divide in access to technological resources.

A poll released by the Education Trust in June 2020 revealed that about seven in 10 Latino and Black parents surveyed are concerned that they do not have the resources or supplies to help their child stay on track academically while school buildings are closed.

Moreover, 39 percent of white parents reported receiving technical assistance to get set up for distance learning, compared to only 29 percent of Black parents. According to preliminary research by the Northwest Evaluation Association into the “COVID-19 slide”—learning loss experienced during summer break, compounded by spring school building closures—our most vulnerable students could end up a half-year behind their peers as a result of the pandemic.

Distance learning projects

To address critical needs ranging from meals to learning materials and internet access, school districts are relying on trusted partners such as DonorsChoose to harness philanthropic resources to support educators and students. As a crowdfunding platform by teachers for teachers, DonorsChoose has safeguards and transparency measures built into its model that enable the safe, efficient delivery of supplementary materials selected by teachers to support student learning.

This 20-year track record of safely and effectively supporting teachers uniquely positioned DonorsChoose to mobilize resources during the pandemic. As a trusted partner to classroom teachers, and with a large funding base of donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, DonorsChoose was able to swiftly launch a new project type—Distance Learning Projects—in response to evolving COVID-19-related needs. 

Maintaining high levels of transparency and accountability, Distance Learning Projects allow teachers to receive specific educational materials and student life essentials—from food items to books to math games—and safely deliver them to their students to support at-home learning. Beyond Distance Learning Projects, DonorsChoose is providing logistical flexibility for the thousands of other classroom projects on its platform. Teachers can adjust or delay delivery dates to schools and choose to send resources to an approved district warehouse.

District partnerships

For Atlanta Public Schools, partners such as DonorsChoose are more important now than ever before to help provide extra resources to educators as they address the individual needs of their students. This support is needed for longer-term digital instruction or, upon return to the classroom, to level the playing field for low-income students.

Long before the pandemic hit, we integrated DonorsChoose into our culture to maximize the number of high-quality resources available to students throughout the district. As an inaugural member of the free DonorsChoose District Partnership Program, we have made the platform an intentional part of our national philanthropic engagement strategy. In addition to creating regular reporting and customized technology guidelines, we partnered with DonorsChoose staff to train and offer incentives to teachers to create classroom projects focusing on the district mission of college and career readiness.

To date, DonorsChoose has provided our teachers with $5.4 million in resources, supporting more than 6,700 projects. In March, when districts across the country were required to close schools to protect the health and safety of students and staff, our activity on the DonorsChoose site was higher than ever. During the time buildings were closed in order to protect the health and safety of students and staff, district staff and leaders have taken extraordinary steps to provide continuity of learning for all students, developing and implementing creative approaches to the remote delivery of education and related services. Data shows that our teacher usage in March surged by 124 percent from the previous year.

The value of our partnership with DonorsChoose during this tumultuous time is best captured through a story from one of our teachers. Mrs. Farrar teaches students in grades six to eight at Atlanta Public Schools’ Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy. DonorsChoose also celebrated the school’s educators and students on Good Morning America for the national kickoff of the #ISeeMe campaign initiative in May 2019.

Mrs. Farrar’s project on DonorsChoose, titled “It’s OK That You Are Not OK,” allowed her to provide her students with recorded meditation and social-emotional learning sessions to ease anxiety and depression associated with the pandemic. Nearly all of Farrar’s students come from low-income households. In her project description, she explained that “the safety net offered by the school along with our staff and specifically my office has left our students with a huge gap in numerous areas to include their overall mental health.”

DonorsChoose gave Mrs. Farrar a platform to articulate her vision for supporting her students during this critical time and access to a donor community that could help make that vision a reality.

As district leaders nationwide now focus on the eventual transition back to in-person instruction, addressing instructional loss, mental health needs, support for students with disabilities, and other supports—particularly for our most vulnerable students—will be our top priority. 

Ensuring that teachers like Mrs. Farrar have access to resources and networks that support plans for teaching and learning is a key step in addressing educational inequities—both during the pandemic and beyond.

Erika Mitchell (erika.mitchell@atlanta.k12.ga.us) is a board member of Atlanta Public Schools. Keya Wondwossen (keya@donorschoose.org) is the director of advocacy and public partnerships at DonorsChoose.

Around NSBA

a boy being tutored at a desk

Black Students in the Condition of Education 2020

The Center for Public Education selected relevant data from the Condition of Education to help school leaders not only monitor the educational progress of Black students, but also rethink what public schools can do better for Black students.