As soon as COVID-19 broke out in the U.S., Kimber Connors knew what it would mean for higher education.

“Black, Hispanic, Latinx and low-income students are much more likely to fall behind in their studies due to a lack of access to high-quality remote instruction,” she says.

“Before the pandemic, too few Washington students were graduating and earning credentials in the STEM, trade and health care jobs that drive our economy. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only escalated our state’s workforce crisis.”

Connors is the Executive Director of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), a nonprofit organization that connects Washington’s leading industries with young talent by reducing barriers to higher education and training. Like many who are serving people impacted by the COVID-19 crisis, Connors has witnessed the interlocking forces of economic hardship and racial injustice strike her community.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic effects, coupled with the urgent need for racial justice, have many in our community experiencing incredible hardship and loss,” says Tony Mestres, president and CEO of Seattle Foundation. “We are in the midst of an unprecedented crisis — a crisis affecting the Seattle region, our country and the world.”

Fortunately, several charitable organizations are putting their human and financial resources into initiatives designed to reduce racial inequality during the coronavirus crisis and well beyond. For many of these programs, change starts with the educational system, from K-12 students to those pursuing postsecondary degrees. With that change comes good news, and hope for a stronger future.

Racial injustice in the classroom creates a barrier to academic achievement. (Getty Images)

K-12 education gets much-needed support

The intersection of COVID-19 and racial injustice is just as prevalent in K-12 schools as in higher education. Across the U.S., Black male students are disciplined disproportionally more than their white counterparts. This practice creates a barrier to their academic achievement and makes it harder for them to realize their full potential. The Office of African American Male Achievement AAMA is a department of the Seattle Public Schools that is working to change the system to support the “brilliance and excellence of Black boys and teens.”

The department’s goal is to drive this systemic change by listening to Black students and families, then implementing their recommendations to reconstruct school systems that can meet these boys’ social, emotional and educational needs.

However, this type of systemic change will take time. What about those who need help with remote learning right now? In Washington, 22% of students do not have adequate access to high-speed internet and 15% lack the proper equipment. The impact of COVID-19 on students requires immediate action, especially for those furthest from educational justice.

This is where the All In Washington Digital Equity Initiative comes in. Organized by Seattle Foundation and funded with contributions from the Seattle Seahawks, Microsoft, and Puget Sound Energy, the initiative provides funds for hardware and devices, access to hot spots, technological support and resources for community-based organizations. Funding from the initiative is rapidly distributed through InvestED, a statewide nonprofit that partners with over 600 secondary schools across Washington to provide need-based funding and significantly improve student outcomes. To date, the initiative has distributed more than $2.1 million to address this urgent need.

Another way to support equity for children of color in the classroom is by diversifying the K-12 teaching corps and equipping teachers to work in diverse classrooms. The Seattle Teacher Residency program does both. The project was designed in 2012 in partnership with the University of Washington College of Education, the Alliance for Education and the Seattle Education Association. Following a medical residency model, the program recruits, develops and mentors teachers to specifically work in diverse classrooms, creating both professional success and educational achievement in one stroke.

Creating opportunities in higher education

According to a report from the Partnership4Learning, 15.3% of workers with only a high school diploma were unemployed in May 2020, more than twice the unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Communities of color and those without a high school diploma are disproportionally more likely to have lost income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The mission of WSOS sounds tailor-made for recovery from such a time of crisis. The organization supports college students who face the greatest barriers to economic opportunity by providing scholarships for those pursuing careers in technology, science, health care and research. These scholars take on less debt than their peers and within five years of graduating they make on average twice what their families made when they applied.

“Our scholarship is uniquely positioned to ensure students can emerge from COVID-19 with a credential that aligns with the needs of our post-pandemic economy,” says Connors. “Not only will WSOS help us recover from our current economic crisis, but it will also help Washington rebuild in a more inclusive direction, ensuring we don’t continue to leave communities behind.”

Kimber Connors, Washington State Opportunity Scholarship

United Way of King County’s Bridge to Finish program also supports low-income students who are pursuing their postsecondary education at a community college. From emergency grants to food delivery, the program addresses several issues that jeopardize a student’s ability to complete their community college education. Nearly 80% of those supported are students of color, a testament to United Way’s dedication to racial justice.

Looking ahead

Despite the hardships that 2020 brought, many people are optimistic about the future. Gordon McHenry Jr., CEO of United Way King County, is one of them. “We live in a community that is compassionate, generous and responsive to calls for action; the exact support we need as we struggle to survive the pandemics of COVID-19 (health and economic) and renewed commitment to fight against racial injustice.”

Tony Mestres is another. “I’m heartened that we could help people in the hardest-hit communities get through this difficult year and begin the long journey to recovery. We have a lot more work to do.”

And Kimber Connors adds, “a post-COVID-19 economy will depend on Scholars like ours to innovate, engineer and research the world’s toughest problems. It’s inspiring to see fellow Washingtonians come forward in recognition that the hope for our future lies within our very own communities.”

At Microsoft, we believe in a future where every person has the skills, knowledge and opportunities to achieve more. We’re committed to empowering people, communities and organizations around the globe in our effort to ensure an inclusive economic recovery.