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Deepening the Divide: Black Student Experience During the Pandemic

March 02, 2021
A photograph of a young Black woman seated at a desk and looking at a laptop with a pen and notebook in-hand

Education is the strongest predictor of social mobility in Canada. Yet systemic discrimination and anti-Black racism have created persistent gaps in academic achievement for Black students, contributing to unequal outcomes in employment, health and belonging. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened these gaps and stretched the digital divide at precisely the time we have become more dependent on technology for access to education, support and services.

On February 25th, the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute (DI), in partnership with the Future Skills Centre, external link and the Public Policy Forum, external link, hosted a discussion with the Environics Institute and the Lifelong Leadership Institute about the Black student experience in Canada during the pandemic and innovative approaches to creating new education opportunities for Black students.

A graphic advertising “Deepening the Divide: Black Student Experience During the Pandemic” with a photograph of a young Black woman

Dr. Mohamed Elmi (Director of Research, Diversity Institute) led an overview of research examining the Black Canadian student experience, pre-pandemic. Data from The Black Experience Project, external link showed that Black youth report facing more incidences of racism and suffering negative consequences. Just 60% of respondents who attended high school within Canada stated that they always or often felt that they received a good education. More than one quarter (26%) reported never feeling accepted by their teachers at school.  

The experience of exclusion and discrimination is reflected in school achievement. In the Toronto District School Board, one of the only school boards in Canada to collect race-based data, 42% of Black students have been suspended at least once, compared to just 18% of non-racialized students. Black students dropout of high school at twice the rate of non-racialized students (20% versus 11%). While 94% of Black youth aged 15 to 25 surveyed in anotherPDF file study, external link reported a desire to complete an undergraduate degree or higher, approximately 43% of Black students did not apply to university in 2017. 

“We need to put in supports to allow students to be able to find education as a pathway,” Dr. Elmi said. He noted that the elimination of academic streaming in Ontario high schools is one significant step forward and shared his own story. 

“I was a newcomer to Canada and struggled with math. My high school math teacher told my mother that I should be put into a lower level math class, a move which would have prevented me from attending university directly after high school. But my mother refused to follow the teacher’s advice, insisting that I go to university. I often wonder what my life would have been like if she had done what he said, as many in her place would have.” Today, Dr. Elmi holds a PhD in Information Systems from the University of Cape Town and a great deal of his work depends on analytics and mathematical analysis.

The Impacts of COVID-19 on the Black Student Experience

A screenshot taken during the panel discussion, featuring Dr. Grace-Camille Munroe, Dr. Julie Cafley, Dr. Mohamed Elmi, Dr. Andrew Parkin, and Trevor Massey, with Massey speaking

Dr. Elmi also reviewed specific ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharper focus many inequalities in the education system. Poorer neighborhoods are more vulnerable to COVID-19, and many of the residents see fewer choices in education. These same neighborhoods have the greatest barriers to learning. They are also the ones which have chosen homeschooling in spite of being ill equipped to support it. The evidence also suggests that these communities have limited access to computers and to the internet. Students in these neighborhoods are already disadvantaged and COVID-19 has exacerbated this.  

Dr. Andrew Parkin, external link (Executive Director, Environics Institute) reported on results of a soon-to-be released study with the Diversity Institute and Future Skills Centre. He noted that young people surveyed were more likely to report being deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and students are much more likely to say that their mental health is “fair” or “poor” compared to employed and retired respondents. Thirty-seven percent of racialized residents in the GTA whose children are learning online stated that their child is unable to complete their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home. Forty-one percent of these respondents reported that their children have to complete their schoolwork on a cellphone—with screens that may be too small and keyboards that are too cramped. 

Further, nearly half of racialized GTA residents surveyed report worrying about how they will pay their internet and cell phone bills. The long-term implications of this lack of access can be devastating, deeply impacting a student's education, aspirations, and career outcomes.

In the panel discussion, moderated by Dr. Julie Cafley, external link (Executive Vice-President of External Relations, Public Policy Forum), there was an exploration of how innovative approaches to education can help level the playing field for Black students. Trevor Massey, external link (Chair of Board of Directors, Lifelong Leadership Institute (LLI)) described how the Leadership By Design, external link program has been empowering young Black students to see themselves in post-secondary education while building essential skills like resilience, communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity. The LLI works closely with post-secondary institutions to create programs like PURSUE STEM and PURSUE CODING to allow its students to get an inside look at post-secondary education, and imagine themselves in university classrooms after high school. 

“We’re not just wanting our students to be effective leaders in their schools and amongst their fellow students…We want our students to be able to take their place around the table,” explained Massey.

Tutoring is one way to ensure that Black students are receiving additional support during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Dr. Grace-Camille Munroe, external link (Manager for Research, Projects and Operations, Lifelong Leadership Institute), discussed the power of tutoring as a leveller. She spoke about the impact of the Study Buddy program launched in partnership with the Diversity Institute, Ontario Tech University and a host of other partners to support Black, racialized and newcomer families with free tutoring support. The program pairs families and students with teaching candidates earning their degrees in Ontario for free online tutoring. 

“If our students are provided with the adequate resources, an ecology of support, they can and will achieve,” Dr. Munroe explained.

On average, nine out of ten respondents to a survey conducted with Study Buddy participants reported high-levels of satisfaction and self-reported learning. Eight-nine percent of respondents  found that they were more organized with school work and had reduced stress levels as a result of their involvement in the program. One participant wrote, “I received an outstanding achievement award in Chemistry. My final mark was 96 percent and I believe one of the things that contributed to this award was the tutoring I received.”

The session concluded with panelists stressing the importance of ensuring our strategies to respond to the educational impacts produced by COVID-19 and rebuild do not leave youth behind. While we tend to focus on the future of work, skills, and representation in leadership and lament the under-representation of racialized and Black Canadians, we must pay attention to what is happening to youth upstream if we are to have the talent pool we need to advance diversity and inclusion across Canada.

Watch the webinar on-demand, external link to hear more.

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