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The pandemic set back big Latino gains in education. How to get them back on track?

The coronavirus fallout interrupted Latino education success that took decades to achieve amid many pre-pandemic inequities.

SAN ANTONIO — Latino students were making significant gains in education before the pandemic hit. Now, a top national Latino organization is calling for investments and policy changes to get the students back on track.

The educational success of Latino students in recent decades has included rising math and reading scores, narrowing the gap with non-Hispanic white peers. Latinos’ on-time high school graduation rate rose from 71% in 2010-11 school year to 82% in 2018-19, and the number of Latinos enrolled in postsecondary education increased 384%, from 782,400 in 1990 to almost 3.8 million in 2019, according to an UnidosUS report released Monday.

During the pandemic, math and reading scores fell among all students, but Latinos in third to eighth grade saw sharper declines. The UnidosUS report said Latinos were more likely to attend high-poverty schools that switched to remote learning during the pandemic.

Latinos make up more than one-quarter of the public school population, and nearly all, about 94%, of Latino children under 18 are U.S.-born citizens, the report said.

“As we emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, which we know really hit the community of Latinos very strong, our goal should be to … reimagine what education can look like to ensure the success of Latinos and for the future,” Amalia Chamorro, UnidosUS education policy director, said at a news conference during an annual meeting in San Antonio.

Janet Murguía, UnidosUS president, said in a statement that there is an "urgent need and opportunity" for the U.S. to correct long-standing inequities in the education system that stalled Latino students’ education progress during the pandemic.

UnidosUS recommended improvements in gathering data on student learning and enforcing compliance with federal law to identify and support lower-performing schools.

About 5.1 million English language learner students, or three-quarters of all such students, in the U.S. are Latino. Remote learning had a deeper impact on such students. Many come from low-income families and were less likely to have high-speed internet access at home, the report said.

The report proposed providing more equitable school funding and better investment in students who most need it; increasing support and funding for English language learners; and continuing funding for schools to provide students access to the internet and computers, tablets or other devices.

Families need support to navigate digital instruction to help their children at home. They also may need more ways to connect and participate virtually in school board meetings and school meetings so they can compete for their share of scarce school resources, Murguía said.

“That component is crucial,” said Eric Rodriguez, an UnidosUS vice president, at the conference. “If you’re not organized, if you’re not communicating — which has been particularly an issue for Latino parents all over the country — you may not get access to those scarce resources.”

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