Minorities experience more pressure in educational environments, during COVID-19 pandemic

Art+by+Devin+Hall.

Art by Devin Hall.

Lais Campos

Even with the introduction of vaccinations, the COVID-19 outbreak continues to have far-reaching health and economic consequences for the American public, including students, according to Pew Research Center. Minorities’ experiences, however, differentiate from the rest of the population when it comes to the pandemic. Because of their sexuality or race, minorities tend to regularly experience acts of prejudice from work, school and others which can lead to minority stress. As an example, minority students may face additional challenges in school that other students may not experience because of their sexuality or race.  According to an article by ScienceDirect, minority stress is defined as “a relationship between minority and dominant values, and resultant conflict with the social environment experienced by minority group members.” Stressors, such as homophobia and racism, can cause a student of a minority group to feel threatened, ashamed or overall pressured by society, leading to negative mental health outcomes that can affect them daily. 

RBHS counselor, Lesley Thalhuber, explained how the constant experience of prejudiced acts can impact a student’s psychological state and their day-to-day life. 

“Traumatic experiences make it difficult to learn, and impact the memory negatively and the ability to regulate emotions as needed,” Thalhuber said. “When knowing you are a target because of the color of your skin or your gender, your survival skills are going to be engaged more often, and it will be difficult to be in the optimal zone for feeling safe, thinking clearly, self-soothing, being calm and learning.” 

Minority populations may feel uncomfortable in schools because “many times they are not as welcomed and accepted in a place where they should be able to feel safe,” Thalhuber said. The presence of these prejudices in schools affects the students’ learning experiences, the quality of education they obtain and treatment from educators in the classroom. She added that minority students may suffer stress in schools with a higher percentage of white students and faculty, as a result of direct racism and discrimination, difficulties with cultural or social identities and problems forming deeper relationships with white students and instructors. 

“It can impact their academic achievements, retention and their adjustment to the school, specifically during their first year,” Thalhuber said. “Dealing with the acceptance or rejection of a negative stereotype about oneself or one’s group is an aspect of such encounters with minority stress.”

Considering the risk of mental health disorders being developed on school campuses, the constant pressure experienced by minority students may raise their risk of chronic stress, anxiety and depression. These experiences of negative relations within the educational environment can generate greater stress levels and also be amplified by racially motivated microaggressions, unstable relations with faculty, racial exclusion, marginalization or concerns of racial authenticity. When it comes to the development of mental health risks, Thalhuber said, “trauma associated with minority stress is a major concern with a variety of impacts such as increased fear, worry and anxiety about the safety of self and others; discomfort with feelings such as troubling thoughts or revenge; increased risk for substance abuse; hyperarousal of the survival brain leading to sleep disturbances and startling easily; and the development of mental health disorders.”

Not only does it affect minorities personally on a local level, but RBHS psychology teacher Brian Larsen said systemic racism in the United States also plays a huge role on members of minority groups’ when dealing with other coworkers, students and members in their community. He added that sexual identities and orientations may impact experience with minority stress.

“Someone who is gay but is not out may be able to hide their group affiliation and avoid having to deal directly with the stigma that can be attached to their identity,’’ Larsen said. “However, someone who is a racial minority cannot hide their race and therefore differs in their experiences.” 

According to an article by The Journal of the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education, students who experienced racial bias are not only less likely to be placed in advanced classes, but they are also incurred with the most disciplinary actions and punishments. As a result of being subjected to discrimination early in school, minority populations may have fewer possibilities to enroll and finish higher education. This creates a disparity in opportunities between minorities and the other students, alienating them and restricting their possibilities for advancement. The article also states that even if teachers acknowledge the need to equalize and enhance learning experience for minority students, they may lack the resources and skills to approach the curriculum, methods and guidelines that have long denied minority students the same possibilities to succeed as others.

Systemic racism and discrimination in schools are one of the biggest causes for socially-based minority stress, according to the Center of Community Practice, and it stems from post-slavery America. Over the years, the U.S. has set an unjust public education system, but the connection between education, race and socioeconomic status appears far more complex than the system alone. In an interview with the College of Education, Dean Gregory Anderson at Temple University said the inequitable system is the result of multiple issues, including Jim Crow legislation in the South, the growth of residential segregation in northern states and the federal government’s limited role in supporting and regulating public education. Financial support for public K-12 education competes directly with other federal spending, such as correctional services. Anderson also said federal spending on correctional services has grown significantly over several decades, and this occurrence has influenced the lack of funding for K-12 and higher education public schooling.

Sophomore Pedro Kfuri described how the Equity Coalition club plans to help combat racial and gender bias toward any and all RBHS students so they can foster a more inclusive, positive environment.

“Our overarching goal is to promote diversity and inclusivity in an effort to become a more tolerant, more united school,’’ Kfuri said. “This can be as small as hanging flags up on the wall and providing world-historical resources, or as big as diversifying the curriculum, emphasizing world history, aside from just U.S. history, and reading pieces from authors or artists of all different races, sexualities and genders.’’ 

During the pandemic, adults also experienced discrimination. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, out of 100,000 people, 97.9% of African Americans, 81.9% of Indigenous peoples, 71.5% of Pacific Islanders and 64.7% of Latinos died from COVID-19 because of the lack of access from the U.S. health care, while only 46.6% of white people died. Regarding other negative experiences they’ve had since the outbreak, Asian and African American adults have been the target of slurs or jokes, and have been threatened and physically harmed because of their race or ethnicity. Since the pandemic’s outbreak, Asian Americans and individuals of Asian ethnicity have been the victims of hate speech in media coverage, comments by politicians and hate on social media platforms, where verbal abuse connected to COVID-19 appears to have spread widely. According to a new Pew Research Center survey, roughly “four in ten Black and Asian Americans say people have reported feeling uncomfortable around them because of their race or ethnicity” since the outbreak began. 

Larsen said, we can’t deny the stress minorities experienced during quarantine, because not only did it affect their day-to-day lives, but also their relationships with others and the world around them. 

“Really it’s about treating humans like humans, but understanding that just because people look alike does not mean that every student should be treated the same,’’ Larsen said. “Individualization and differentiation are common tools that are used to try and overcome racial, socio-economic and a host of other differences in the classroom so everyone can feel welcome.’’ 

Have you experienced exacerbated mental health struggles since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and at school? Let us know in the comments below.