Campus News

National Experts Join UK College of Education Discussion on Race and COVID-19

Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Education Julian Vasquez Heilig
Dean of the University of Kentucky College of Education Julian Vasquez Heilig

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Dec. 9, 2020) — Bridging the digital and health divide for students of color during the COVID-19 pandemic is a top concern among several of the nation’s top education and health groups. A recent online panel discussion featuring experts from the University of Kentucky College of Education, the NAACP and the National Medical Association took a closer look at some of the most pressing issues. 

The event was hosted by the Education and Civil Rights Initiative in the UK College of Education. The initiative was established in collaboration with the NAACP and is housed in the college’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation. 

The panelists included: 

  • Leon Russell, NAACP chairman 

  • Adora Obi Nweze, Florida State Conference of the NAACP president 

  • Yumeka Rushing, NAACP chief strategy officer 

  • Dr. Cedric M. Bright, National Medical Association president 

  • Julian Vasquez Heilig, UK College of Education dean and Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation professor 

  • Gregory Vincent (moderator), UK/NAACP Education and Civil Rights Initiative executive director and Educational Policy Studies and Evaluation professor 

Panelists described how the pandemic is impacting U.S. students of color and emphasized the importance of recognizing the challenges that need to be confronted. 

“There is still institutional racism in the United States,” NAACP Chairman Leon Russell said. “It continues to impact us across the board in education, in health care, in criminal justice, in economic development and in so many other ways. It becomes evident every day that discrimination has an impact on our daily lives — no more evident than what has happened as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.” 

Russell said the impact COVID-19 is having on education is among the most pressing issues the pandemic has created and one of particular importance to the NAACP. 

“Education has obviously been the preeminent cause of the NAACP, starting way back with Charles Hamilton Houston, as he devised a strategy to defeat Jim Crow, to defeat separate but equal. We began in the schools because we knew that was a seminal institution in our society,” Russell said. 

Adora Obi Nweze, a veteran educator and president of the Florida NAACP, stressed the need for funding in school districts to ensure they have the resources needed to take care of inadequacies. Education is the total background of any advancement, she said. 

“In order for our people to really move and be on an equal basis and have real equity, then we’ve got to be educated to know how to do it, why to do it, and then ultimately to get it done,” Obi Nweze said. 

The panelists discussed the impacts of COVID-19 on the health and education of students, such as mental health concerns, learning gaps, social development challenges and loss of social safety nets. They also covered the importance of ensuring schools are reopened safely. 

Bright said allostatic load — the wear and tear created on the body when exposed to chronic stress — has contributed to the impact race is having on COVID-19 outcomes. 

“That is because of the issues of allostatic load that impact inflammation in the body,” Bright said. “That leads to why we have more hypertension and diabetes, because of the impact of racism and adverse childhood events and adverse life events, that impact our genetics over time, which is called epigenetics. It’s not just because we are Black, but the issue of being Black in America, that puts us at increased risk for this virus.” 

Examined through the lens of epigenetics, the isolation, economic challenges and other new stressors created by the pandemic stand to possibly leave a lasting impact. 

“It's tough on parents, it's tough on teachers,” NAACP Chief Strategy Officer Yumeka Rushing said. “We're really muddling through this thing together. But we have got to stay the course and stay focused on solutions and what we can do. There's a lot of emphasis on what the problems are, but I would say that we're really trying to stay focused on what we can do.” 

Panelists shared best practices and resources they think will help make a difference, such as innovative partnerships with technology corporations and professional development focused on trauma-informed care and online teaching. They also recommended finding ways to help educators deal with cultural competencies so they understand racial equity and how to talk about race. 

“We need to make sure that we are training educators to teach in these different formats,” Vasquez Heilig said. “That’s one of the things we work really hard to do in the College of Education, to provide that support for local districts. For teachers and educators, in K-12 and in higher education, this is a whole new paradigm for most of us — teaching students online, keeping them engaged.”  

Rushing emphasized the importance of a two-way dialogue between schools and parents. 

“Parents are struggling,” Rushing said. “There is some informing, but there is no real engagement. We’ve got to get the engagement right. There’s not enough information that’s out there. Because of that lack of information, we’ve forgotten about engagement. So, we've got to make sure that that engagement work continues to happen so that it's not one-sided, parents have an opportunity to tell us what they need.” 

The webinar’s moderator, Gregory Vincent, executive director of the Education and Civil Right Initiative in collaboration with the NAACP, based at the UK College of Education, said UK and the NAACP, as well as associations such as the National Medical Association, can make an impact by creating reliable, evidence-based research to help fight against the disinformation that has disproportionately targeted black and brown communities. 

“The NAACP, working together with the College of Education in this civil rights and education initiative, will ensure we develop the kind of advocacy strategies that create public policies that effectively deal with the issues that COVID has created,” Russell said. “That’s where I think we need to go.” 

As the state’s flagship, land-grant institution, the University of Kentucky exists to advance the Commonwealth. We do that by preparing the next generation of leaders — placing students at the heart of everything we do — and transforming the lives of Kentuckians through education, research and creative work, service and health care. We pride ourselves on being a catalyst for breakthroughs and a force for healing, a place where ingenuity unfolds. It's all made possible by our people — visionaries, disruptors and pioneers — who make up 200 academic programs, a $476.5 million research and development enterprise and a world-class medical center, all on one campus.   

In 2022, UK was ranked by Forbes as one of the “Best Employers for New Grads” and named a “Diversity Champion” by INSIGHT into Diversity, a testament to our commitment to advance Kentucky and create a community of belonging for everyone. While our mission looks different in many ways than it did in 1865, the vision of service to our Commonwealth and the world remains the same. We are the University for Kentucky.