By Lucas L. Johnson II

For years now, we’ve known about the disparities in health care and education that exist in Black communities. But the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem and forced Americans, particularly lawmakers and other leaders, to look more closely at ways to close the gaps.  

Over the last few months, a series of stories in The Tennessee Tribune have explored the impact COVID-19 has had on K-12 students, particularly in Black communities in Tennessee, and how government resources are being used to alleviate disparities in learning.

The first story looked at a new $100 million statewide initiative called Reading 360 that seeks to ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade. To help support literacy development in Tennessee, the state has leveraged about $60 million of one-time federal COVID-19 relief funding and $40 million in federal grant funding to launch Reading 360 and invest in optional reading resources and supports at no cost to the state or districts.

In July, the Tennessee Department of Education announced 92 school districts would be participating in the Reading 360 Early Literacy Network. 

“Tennessee is deeply committed to building strong reading skills in our youngest students, and Reading 360 has already reached 50,000+ families through free, at-home reading resources and 9,000+ Tennessee educators through summer literacy trainings,”said Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.  

Dr. Jerri Haynes, a nationally recognized educator and dean of the College of Education at Tennessee State University, said she’s glad Reading 360 is being implemented. But she said there needs to be an initiative that helps students, particularly those in Black communities, with their mental health. 

“We continue to find that there are mental health issues faced by children losing a parent, relative, friend, etc.,” said Haynes. “The K-12 school settings do not offer mental health screenings and mental health messaging to mitigate the outcomes of health disparities within schools.” 

The other stories in the series have, or will, address the following: 

  • What do state lawmakers (particularly African Americans) have to say about learning disparities and what are they doing about it. What legislation have they proposed or plan to? 
  • A look at how programs, like tutoring services, have stepped in to make sure youth continue to learn and are cared for. 
  • What are some challenges students returning to in-person learning have had to overcome after being remote? The story will also include discussion about students’ mental health, and what help is out there for those that need it.
  • How has the pandemic affected teaching interest? The story will look into whether there has been a rise or fall in teacher applications amid COVID-19, and if there has been a noticeable exit of teachers from the field. The story will also explore how teachers’ mental health is being impacted.  

The series of stories are made possible through the “Black Press Grant Program,” set up by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) to provide grant funding directly to support freelance reporters and producers at Black-owned media outlets. The program is supported by a $300,000 grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI).

“The Black Press Grant Program will help amplify Black voices and storytellers to advance racial equity,” said Raymonde Charles, Vice President of Communications, Education and Ventures for CZI. “We are excited to support NABJ’s efforts to raise awareness of critical issues that disproportionately impact the Black community, including the impact of COVID-19 on students of color in our education system.”

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was founded in 2015 to help solve some of society’s toughest challenges — from eradicating disease and improving education, to addressing the needs of local communities.

The National Association of Black Journalists is an organization of 4,000 journalists, students, media-related professionals, and journalism educators. The association provides innovative, quality programs and services to and advocates on behalf of Black journalists worldwide. Founded in 1975 by 44 men and women in Washington, D.C., NABJ advocates year-round to ensure fairness, diversity, and inclusion are a priority across the news and media industries.