Focusing on Equity in Crisis

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As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

As we adjust to what many are referring to as our “new normal”, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences as a postsecondary leader during Hurricane Katrina. Understanding that Katrina impacted a specific region, like the 911 attack and the Flint water crisis, there are still lessons learned that can assist postsecondary leaders and policymakers across the country in responding to this present crisis.

In the aftermath of any disaster, marginalized populations are significantly impacted. That is why lawmakers must use an equity lens in their response efforts. An equity lens is a process for analyzing the impact of the design and implementation of policies on underserved and marginalized communities. This lens is also essential in identifying and potentially eliminating barriers (1). Centuries of injustice and structural racism in education, health care and economic prosperity have left minority communities more vulnerable to the impacts of any crisis. A structurally racist society will always result in inequitable outcomes if policymakers are not using this critical lens.

As postsecondary leaders and policymakers respond to today’s crisis, we must be deliberate in counteracting a system constructed on the marginalization of groups of people. One of the first things that can be done is changing the narrative of “getting over race and differences” to “acknowledging race and differences.” If we cannot do that, we will not be able to appropriately meet the needs of learners.

These immediate needs include access to technology, access to remote learning, access to basic needs and access to economic opportunities. As we struggle to make this crisis an equitable recovery, we must be clear and resolute in addressing the racial inequities for long-term sustainability.

When Katrina struck, it ripped the scab off underlying racism, prejudice and bias in our community – elevating these issues into a national conversation. More than 15 years later, we continue to suffer from some of the same ills of the past. We must use this moment not as a band-aid approach but as major surgery to cut out the systemic racism that plagues our policies at the federal, state, local and institutional levels.

We must also have the courage to interrupt the present political structures and create new policies around an equity narrative. This new narrative should be based on the results of policy audits through an equity lens at all levels. The results of these audits should be aligned with the appropriate disaggregated data analysis, decision-making and financial resources. This process will result in new policies created through an equity focus.

An equity focus in policy recognizes the need to eliminate disparities in educational outcomes of students from underserved and underrepresented populations. It is deliberately color-conscious and seeks specifically to eliminate the widening postsecondary gaps for Native American, African American, Latino students and any population the data identifies as underserved. It prioritizes federal, state and institutional accountability rather than student deficits, and monitors the impact of all policy on marginalized groups (2).

If we are committed to stronger results for all learners after COVID-19, we cannot continue to do the same things expecting different results following every crisis. As we address the immediate challenges of our learners, we should ask ourselves how does this decision impact those that are most marginalized on our campuses and in our communities? We must work to modify or create policies that will prioritize the needs of these learners so that they will not be inequitably impacted during every crisis for the rest of their lives.























  1. University Policy Program, “Equity Lens,” (University of Minnesota, July 12, 2018),
  2. Center for Urban Education, “Equity, Attainment and State Policy,” (University of Southern California, February 14, 2017),
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