Separate but Unequal — Brown v. Board of Education in the Age of Coronavirus

Understood
7 min readMay 20, 2020
children in line to board a yellow school bus

By Andrew M.I. Lee

For more than seven decades, we’ve been steadily working toward a goal of inclusion and equity in our schools. We’ve made great strides from the days when black students couldn’t learn alongside white students, and kids with disabilities were kept out of public schools altogether.

This month marks the 66th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that got us this far — Brown v. Board of Education. But with the coronavirus turning traditional schooling on its head, it makes sense to think about what inclusion and equity in education mean right now.

In May 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down the doctrine of “separate but equal” in Brown. No longer could Southern states segregate white and black children into separate schools.

The decision changed America, leading to the end of other racist policies, like laws against interracial marriage. Brown also inspired efforts to integrate students with disabilities, millions of whom had been excluded from public schools.

But this May, nearly every student in the United States is learning at home — physically, socially, and sometimes emotionally separated from their peers. What’s the legacy of Brown in this age of coronavirus?

According to Johns Hopkins University, the global coronavirus pandemic has killed almost 320,000 people around the world, including more than 90,000 in the United States. It has sickened millions more. And it’s changed the nature of how we as humans interact and relate to one another.

The impact on children has been immediate and profound. Most public schools in the United States have closed for the remainder of the school year. The things we think of as part of childhood education — walking or taking the bus, circle time, recess, and playing with friends — are all gone, replaced by at-home worksheets and distance learning. All this has happened in the space of a few months.

For many children, the drastic change has been challenging. They miss their friends, their school, and their former daily life. For kids and families who face added burdens, it’s been even more difficult.

Consider the children whose parents are first responders like nurses and doctors, or essential workers in grocery stores, food service, or other industries. What’s the emotional toll on these kids? How about the 15 million U.S. children who live in poverty. They may not even have enough food, much less internet access. How can we expect them to take part meaningfully in an online class?

And what about the millions of children with disabilities, many of whom rely on schools for vital educational services? What educational equity can they expect when many schools struggled to meet their needs even before the pandemic?

Experts say we’re starting to see a massive and profound educational and mental health crisis among youth. Dimitri Christakis, MD, MPH, a nationally respected pediatrician, summarized these concerns in a recent article for the Journal of the American Medical Association and in an interview with NPR. Christakis points to three challenges caused by schools that are no longer teaching kids in person.

First, kids are falling behind in school, and some are dropping out altogether. Second, the lack of interaction is damaging the social and emotional development of kids, which will likely lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression. Third, we’re seeing more and more cases of child abuse as stay-at-home orders strain family relationships.

Faced with this looming crisis, it’s overwhelming to even think about where to begin to protect our kids. It helps to start with what each of us knows. My professional work is with Understood, where we focus on the one in five students who learn and think differently — those with ADHD, learning disabilities, and other challenges. These kids make up the majority of students who receive special education in public schools. Many aren’t formally identified with disabilities.

Before the pandemic, most of these students spent the majority of their days in regular, general education classrooms. That was the promise of Brown to the disability movement, delivered in part through the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), our nation’s special education law (originally passed in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act). Although it’s never been perfect in practice, in the last few decades, integration did become reality for many students with disabilities.

Now, we’re in a different world. Our kids are at home, each of them learning separately. Those who are lucky enough to have internet access and live in the right school district may come together now and then via videoconference, but by and large they do their assignments individually and alone. Schools are doing their best to ensure that kids have a meaningful educational experience, but students and families are having wildly disparate experiences.

One of the young people I work with is a 19-year-old Latino living in Brooklyn who dreams of becoming a world-class journalist. I first got to know him when he was a paid intern with us while getting his high school diploma through an alternative program. He did such a good job that when he went to college, we hired him to create content for other young people.

This young man, who lives with ADHD, autism, and social anxiety, hasn’t left the small apartment he shares with his family for two months. He gets through his classes and daily assignments as best he can. On my last call with him, which cut in and out due to our phone connection, I asked how things were going. He replied with one word: “Hard.”

Of course, many of the inequities we see with remote learning existed long before the coronavirus and are simply being amplified by this crisis. While Brown changed America, it didn’t erase our problems. Recent statistics show that schools are still segregated by race and income. We may be in the same storm of this pandemic, but we are not all in the same boat.

Yet the promise of public education — and that of Brown — is that society will try to give every child the same opportunity to thrive. Or at least give them the same oars to row with. That’s what makes the current situation of remote learning so difficult. It’s much harder to provide equity.

When I think about what’s happening today, I can’t help thinking of this passage written by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the Brown decision:

To separate [children] from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone…

[I]n the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.

These words are as true today as they ever were. Separate educational experiences are inherently unequal. Moreover, we now have greater understanding of the complexity of overlapping challenges young people face. The student I work with doesn’t just face learning and thinking differences — he is also a person of color and from a low-income background.

We must follow the counsel of public health experts on when schools can reopen. It may not be for some time. In the meantime, we have to figure out how to fulfill the promise of Brown as best we can for as long as this pandemic continues. Otherwise, I fear it will impact kids in ways that, as Justice Warren said, can’t be undone.

Naming something gives it importance. That’s why on this 66th anniversary of Brown, it’s so critical that we point out the problem and be intentional about the direction we want to go.

1. We need a renewed emphasis and focus on integration while students are learning at home.

It’s not enough to send learning packets home and have kids learn individually at their own pace on computers. It’s not even enough to have one or two videoconference classes. There must be a sustained, intentional effort by schools, families, and our society to carve out space for students to interact with each other and with their teachers, across race, disability, and economic status.

2. We must put supports in place for students at home, so that even while they’re learning separately, they have equal opportunity.

Part of the reason the Supreme Court in Brown struck down “separate but equal” was that it was only lip service in a system where unequal resources were the norm. Separate was never equal in a segregated America. With the drastic, rapid changes to schooling, we need to correct imbalances in all forms, whether it’s access to the internet, funding, or services for kids who need them.

3. We must think about what comes next.

The coronavirus crisis will end one day. When it does, what will we do? Will we go back as if nothing happened, ignoring the damage done to kids and preserving the inequalities? Or will we fulfill the promise of Brown for this generation of kids?

We must focus on creating a world where kids of color, kids with disabilities, those who learn and think differently, and those who have different backgrounds can all learn and grow together. That’s our calling and responsibility on the anniversary of Brown.

Andrew M.I. Lee, JD, associate director of editorial content, attorney, writer, content strategist, parent, and Gen X video and board gamer.

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