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Through no merit of her own, my 5-year-old daughter is already on the other side of an educational opportunity divide, in a world of haves and have-nots.

Through no effort or talent on her part, she was born into a community with good schools. She has two parents with advanced degrees and stable jobs that enable them to work from home.

In so many ways, she won the lottery. We have the flexibility to send her to school or to home-school her for the coming year. We have Wi-Fi, financial resources, supervision and an environment to make it work. My daughter has no disability, so we have no worries about advocating for her educational rights. Her school sends us materials in her native language.

My wife and I are anxious, but it’s an anxiety based on inconveniences, rather than on a lack of options.

I contrast that with what my own mother might have felt when I was my daughter’s age. A solo working parent, she emigrated from Iran to a new country alone and raised two sons, including one, me, who couldn’t speak English. Had broadband even existed then, chance are we wouldn’t have been able to afford it.

As vulnerable as she must have felt, my mother would have relied on one principle: The richest society in the world would have a moral responsibility for the well-being of kids like me, along with families who faced even more extreme obstacles.

The nonprofit education equity group I have the privilege to co-chair has drafted explicit questions for decision-makers, including educators, school leaders and district, state and national policy leaders. We are urging them to consider the needs of students who confront barriers to reaching their fullest educational potential.

They may have disabilities or not speak English as a first language or come from low-income families or lack access to stable housing. They may live in rural, remote areas with limited internet. They may face racism or homophobia or any number of other issues they must overcome on a daily basis.

Related: Is teacher preparation failing students with disabilities?

As a disability rights advocate, I’ve experienced a common pattern in education that preceded the pandemic. Well-meaning individuals may say all the right things in their commitment to equity and inclusion. They will confidently implement a new curriculum, education technology initiative or school reform effort — until there is backlash from families and advocates representing marginalized students.

Why? Because difficult conversations around what achieving equity actually means almost never happen in our schools, communities and society.  Most educators are unprepared. Appropriate resources were never deployed. Systems were never designed with all learners in mind. 

And yet, students in groups most likely to face discrimination — with more complex needs — are thrown into a system designed for a theoretical “average” learner, not for them.  

As education equity advocates, we’ve long discussed the reality that our education system, as well as our society as a whole, has never been designed to address a wide variety of student needs — even before the pandemic.

“As education equity advocates, we’ve long discussed the reality that our education system, as well as our society as a whole, has never been designed to address a wide variety of student needs — even before the pandemic.”

As their needs deepen without attention, it is only natural that marginalized students, their families and their advocates are angry. The students who need the most are bearing the disproportionate weight of sacrifice during the pandemic.

The system as it stands now will always underserve these students. There are common threads that merit our explicit attention when it comes to access, capacity, opportunity and outcomes. 

No student should be denied the tools needed to learn. Many today still don’t have access to Wi-Fi to get remote lessons, and even when they do, the language or format of those lessons puts them practically out of reach for learners with disabilities and those learning English as a second language. 

Beyond physical access, every learner deserves quality, prepared and supportive educators who can help them achieve their fullest potential. To the greatest extent possible, those educators need to provide students with learning opportunities that challenge and excite them.

And all students should be embraced for the unique gifts and contributions they bring to a learning environment.  While the proportions of students in marginalized communities change depending on where one lives, expectations should not. That’s why it’s important to continue to measure outcomes on how effectively we’re serving these learners.

If you are an educator, a school leader, a district administrator or a policymaker, you should have a plan for how you connect with other decision-makers to help these students.

If you are a student, a parent or an advocate, you have a right to hold decision-makers accountable. They have a responsibility to be active partners in the solutions.

A willingness to be vulnerable and a commitment to show resolve are needed until our system and its young people achieve their fullest potential.

Ace Parsi is the director of innovation at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. He co-chaired the International Society for Technology in Education’s Learning Keeps Going Centering Equity Working Group. The views expressed are those of the author.

This story about students with disabilities was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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