SXSW EDU: Educators, students still strive toward equity despite pandemic

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted many parts of civilization, U.S. educators, students and educational advocates have continued to battle for social equity in the classroom.

Experts addressed these and other issues at South by Southwest (SXSW) EDU, the education-centric portion of the annual Austin-based SXSW festival.

The pandemic’s emergence last spring caused the abrupt cancellation of all SXSW activities in 2020. This year, on March 9-11, SXSW EDU and main SXSW took place completely online.

See more SXSW coverage from this year and past years here.

Several discussions at this year’s SXSW EDU broached upon the issue of overcoming marginalization, be it in terms of race, sexual identity, socioeconomics or disabled students.

Communities In Schools had a presentation on education equity and a need to reengage students as the world struggles to end the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to CIS Chief Program and Innovation Officer Heather Clawson, many students still feel they’re struggling because they lack traditional, closer connections with their typical support system, such as teachers, counselors and aides who’d otherwise be around all the time.

Clawson said estimates show less than 1/3rd of U.S. high school students are currently on track to graduate, and that 3 million students have practically fallen off the radar since last spring when schools went to all-virtual learning.

CIS President and CEO Rey Saldaña, a former San Antonio City Councilman, said communities of students - especially Black, Latinx and indigenous - are hurt not only by the pandemic’s impact, but also by the concept of “how we built our schools.”

This is where organizations such as CIS enter the scene, working directly inside schools and building relationships to empower students.

“We need to have someone at the center of a student’s life, but not just anyone, somebody who developed a relationship with that young person, and at Communities In Schools, we’ve been doing this work now for 44 years,” Saldana explained.

Saldana added that in order for the nation to improve equity in schools, citizens must first admit “public schools and public education weren’t built for all students, especially for the growing population of students who are suffering and living through poverty.”

Communities In Schools President and CEO Rey Saldana, a former San Antonio City Councilman, discusses CIS’ efforts to reengage students toward the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Communities In Schools President and CEO Rey Saldana, a former San Antonio City Councilman, discusses CIS’ efforts to reengage students toward the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every Learner Everywhere, a network of 12 partner organizations, had a presentation with three college students, asking them how the pandemic has affected them and perhaps disrupted ongoing efforts toward racial and socioeconomic equity.

The students said they have struggled, in various ways, not only in staying atop their virtual lessons, but accessing campus resources and even coping with stress sparked by the coronavirus outbreak and by other major events of the past year, such as social justice protests and the recent elections.

Student Yonus Harris agreed with the other students that, in the past year, students seem passive in virtual classes and are not getting enough communication with their instructors.

Harris said not being able to gather in groups with other students, in real life, for studying or projects, compounds matters.

“There just seems to be more work for every class,” he added.

Harris and students Jules Joe and Serita Liles suggested faculty not only should strive to frequently answer students’ questions, they should also be more open and approachable to students, and even do virtual welfare checks by asking students how they are personally doing.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative had a presentation about using measurement to address disparities in educational outcomes.

Ezekiel Dixon-Roman, associate professor at CZI, suggested diversifying the field of critical data science, adding that racial representation matters toward a better understanding of one’s own community and how they receive education.

Jennifer Randall, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Massachusetts, suggested moving away from what she called a “white-centered approach to assessment and moving into a system of assessment where the fountain of knowledge and understanding of all students - particularly students of color and historically marginalized students who have been erased - is really valued.”

Randall also suggested moving away from standardized testing and from policymakers using educational assessments as a means to determine the overall outcome of increasingly diverse communities.

The It Gets Better Project had a presentation with three high school “youth ambassadors” and their mission to empower and connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. 

“It Gets Better” panelists at SXSW EDU
“It Gets Better” panelists at SXSW EDU

One ambassador, Jace Deininger of Utah, said it’s important for a student here to feel safe in their classroom, and know they have an understanding teacher.

“(Students) know they can go to someone if they’re experiencing bullying or harassment. It takes stress away from the learning environment,” he added.

Isabella Jimenez of Dallas, the panel moderator, said she’s rarely had such positive interactions with her past teachers except for her eighth-grade history teacher.

“She was so cool. She was just open about everything. I remember having that outlet, feeling supported and it was always super important to me,” Jimenez added.

The youth ambassadors also agreed having access to a Gay-Straight Alliance on a campus or somewhere else local, too, can be helpful for LGBTQ students, although that can be hard to come by in more conservative communities.

Youth ambassador Hammy Hamilton of Alabama suggested schools have not only more inclusive curriculum and library books, but also inclusive spaces.

“It’s the small things that make a big difference,” Hamilton said.

In a presentation about safeguarding a student’s mental health in virtual or hybrid learning settings, Blue Shield of California has launched a Blue Sky Initiative in order to secure group or individual therapy or basic support services via online for students, especially those in crisis.

The National Council for Behavioral Health has the Mental Health First Aid program, which does not offer full treatment or diagnosis, but it does connect students experiencing mental health challenges with the appropriate locally available resources.

Blue Shield of California launched the Blue Sky Initiative, which includes a mental health first aid kit for students in physical, virtual or hybrid settings.
Blue Shield of California launched the Blue Sky Initiative, which includes a mental health first aid kit for students in physical, virtual or hybrid settings.

Speaker Monica Nepomuceno with the California Department of Education went over the five steps of having a mental health first aid action plan for students: approaching and assessing risk of suicide or harm, listening non-judgmentally, giving reassurance and information, encouraging appropriate professional help, and encouraging self-help and other support strategies.

Another presentation delved into how Historically Black Colleges and Universities are uniquely suited to be the center of a higher education ecosystem that produces Black scientists and scholars in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) and overall education.

The moderator, Langston Patrick, an associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said HBCUs have been good about enabling first-generation college students to develop social capital.

Langston Patrick, associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, speaks with fellow panelists in a SXSW EDU discussion about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Langston Patrick, associate professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, speaks with fellow panelists in a SXSW EDU discussion about Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Reanna Roby, a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University and a past UTSA student, graduated from Alcorn State University. She was the first in her family to attend college.

“I was able to benefit from the other first-generation students there and from the programs that were made available to us,” she said. “It made the experience of being at Alcorn State not so lonely.”

Brittany Patrick, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland and a school administrator with DC Public Schools, graduated from North Carolina A&T State University.

Patrick chose North Carolina A&T because both her parents went there, and she felt safe and confident that this university would equip her for her future career in education.

“I felt I would not only have the academic support, but the family feel that would give me support and push me through while matriculating through the university,” she said.

“That social capital not only pushed me through my bachelor’s (degree), but it also pushed me through my master’s (degree) program, and then it opened a door where I thought ‘Hey, is getting a Ph.D even possible?’”

Terrell Morton, an associate professor at the University of Missouri, is a fellow North Carolina A&T alumni who had many family members attend the same university. Morton said that legacy lured him to NCA&T.

There, he developed meaningful working relationships and partnerships “that gave me a sense of capital, that leverage, that fund that I was able to utilize as I matriculated through my undergraduate career studying chemical but even beyond as I went into my master’s and Ph.D programs and now as an associate professor.”

The panelists agreed that HBCUs are particularly vital in demonstrating to students - and to the world - that anyone could pursue career fields such as STEM, that this was no longer a path dominated by white men.

“One of the ways Alcorn State ‘STEMmed me up’ was that it helped me to debunk the narrative of who does science and who doesn’t do science,” Roby said.

Clark explained that in HBCUs, partially because of legacy students, faculty members are in effect their students’ advisors and some of their closest confidants.

Students with disabilities who had endured various barriers to learning pre-pandemic encountered even more problems while learning from home during the pandemic.

Stephanie Cawthon, an educational psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explored this subject alongside Elizabeth Barker, accessibility research manager at Northwest Evaluation Association.

Cawthon and Barker addressed three challenges that have adversely affected the learning process for  students with disabilities. One is that going exclusively to remote classes has hindered primary school systems’ abilities to on-site identify students who might be eligible for special education services.

One attendee suggested that videoconferencing could allow some parents of disabled students to become more involved with helping to determine which school services may work best for their child.

Secondly, hearing-impaired students may struggle to understand teachers via online classes. It’s a challenge compounded when such students’ assistive communications devices rarely work with videoconferencing platforms.

An educator attending this discussion suggested parents here could record their child working on their assignment at home. The video could be shared with that child’s parents and help them to find out which specific supports that student requires.

A third challenge is that not every disabled-student assessment is user-friendly in an environment where many schools remain closed or are operating with a limited capacity.

Cawthon proposed that school systems be provided with ways to administer online assessments with accommodations to better suit a range of students with disabilities.