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December 9, 2021

COVID’s unequal impact and how volunteers are tipping the scales

Why I’m supporting Reading Partners this year, and I hope you will, too…

For nearly three decades, my work in the change-making sector has made me witness to a multitude of national emergencies and community crises — both natural and manmade disasters — and their devastating and disproportionate impact on lives and communities.  I’ve also seen the powerful role everyday citizens can play in helping communities respond to and recover from disasters. While the scale, duration, and magnitude of the COVID-19 disaster is unprecedented, I believe community-centered volunteer efforts will still be a vital part of our country’s recovery – and absolutely essential for repairing our public education systems.  Reading Partners is a brilliant example of how volunteers are bridging the gaps, which have only been widened by the pandemic, and helping to tip the scales in opposition to educational disparity, one child at a time.  


Research from multiple studies illustrates the devastating and disproportionate toll — almost double — the pandemic has taken on students of color and those experiencing poverty.  According to recent research from Curriculum Associates’ i-Ready in-school assessment and in-depth analysis by McKinsey and Company:

  • Students in predominantly low-income schools lost as much as 6 months of learning, compared to 3 months for their peers in high-income schools.
  • Schools serving majority Black and Latino students saw almost double the amount of unfinished learning in third grade reading as schools serving majority White students.
  • The percentage of third-grade students who are not on grade level in schools serving majority Black students grew by 17 percentage points, compared to six points in schools serving majority White students. In schools serving majority Latino students, the percentage of students who are behind grew by 14 percentage points.


It is clear from the national data that students of color and/or those experiencing poverty were impacted at greater levels, exacerbating pre-existing inequities and calling for a new urgency in our response. Even now, and despite billions of dollars of COVID-19 relief funding for K-12 schools, parents are struggling to access the extra support that students need to recover academically. According to a recent poll by the National Parents’ Union, more than a third of parents say not having enough tutoring or academic support is a major problem. Notably, higher-income families are hiring private tutors at record levels, further illustrating and deepening our country’s educational inequity. 

As a national board member of Reading Partners, I am proud of the work Reading Partners is doing to address this crisis. With 181 program sites across 12 metro areas, Reading Partners is mobilizing tens of thousands of volunteers to help bridge the opportunity gap that the pandemic has widened. The model is simple and highly effective: working with schools, Reading Partners identifies students who are reading six months or more below grade level and targets their individual literacy needs. Each student is paired with a trained volunteer reading partner who delivers one-on-tutoring twice each week, following a structured curriculum. And it works! Student performance results confirm that 90 percent of younger students (K-2) enrolled in the program master the key foundational skills needed to read at grade levelOf all Reading Partners students (K-5th grade), 90 percent of whom are students of color, more than eight in 10 typically meet or exceed their end-of-year literacy goals. 


Reading Partners is truly a best-in-class volunteer model – and I can say that with conviction, as someone who’s had up-close experience with a wide range of education intervention programs and volunteer models. 

As our country emerges from the pandemic, and educators and policy makers look for solutions, I will be advocating for programs like Reading Partners that offer high-dosage tutoring, proven results and a highly personalized, one-on-one approach that targets the unique needs of each and every child. 

As the end of the year approaches, and we all consider how we might make a difference, I urge you to take a good look at what Reading Partners is doing in communities nationwide. And, I hope you’ll consider volunteering or donating to help ensure more students have the critical one-on-one tutoring they need to succeed.  Together, we can help tip the scales. 

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