Many low-income families are not celebrating graduation this year.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth.

Graduation photos are all over social media these past few weeks, with students seemingly looking happier and stronger as they emerge out of the pandemic.

On Sunday, June 6, I had the opportunity to be the keynote speaker for my town’s high school graduation. Yarmouth High School students sat before their parents, family and friends. It was cheerful despite the baking sun. Every student who spoke emphasized their resilience throughout the year of the pandemic, but also thanked their parents for the support they had given them. The diversity in graduation was almost less than 1%.

While it is such a big deal to celebrate this day, we also have to remind ourselves of the many students who are not graduating this year due to the difficulties the pandemic brought upon them. While many parents are grilling hot dogs to celebrate with family and friends, other parents across Maine are not doing so because their students have experienced educational disruptions that continue to have substantial effects, extending beyond education. According to what I have seen and heard, school closures across the state of Maine in many cases have hampered the provision of essential services to children from low-income families, including loss of school meals.

This year’s graduation revealed this existing inequality. While some students joined classes from the comfort of their houses with speedy internet and supportive parents, some have struggled to not only find good internet and a space to study, but healthy and nutritional food. As parents lost income, school dropouts increased, forcing some of the students to make difficult decisions, according to firsthand accounts I have heard, including taking up jobs to support their families and leaving education for later.

There was no swift government response to ensure educational continuity for these communities. The stimulus packages have not even arrived at some of these households. According to a March 12 article published by CNBC, nearly 18% of the lowest-income students may have taken fewer classes due to the pandemic, while 3% of the white students said they did. The changes last year requiring teachers to move classes online benefited the few who have the necessary equipment, internet access and accessible materials.

The state of Maine is slightly different compared to other states in the country; Maine’s growing population of students of color are predominantly immigrant students compared to native-born African Americans. These immigrant students usually don’t have parents who went to school; they would not be able to help with their lessons. Many of these parents may not even be able to  navigate ways to support their students at home in any way. I worked as an interpreter for a few years, and I have seen firsthand the challenges parents face when it comes to discussing their children’s education with teachers.

The graduation rate is low this year for low-income families, but the gap will grow bigger as these families may take a while to get back to normal. These hard-working students who have missed graduation this year deserved a waiver from their school districts. We all can understand how it feels to stay home and only watch your schoolmates graduate by scrolling their social media posts. Maine school districts should consider the waiver program as soon as they can to help the students catch up and finish school.

Maine’s lowest-income students should come first. The State Board of Education should consider the students who have met the challenges brought upon them by the historic pandemic and before these students lose hope of a future, the board should deliver some good news to them. The issue to consider should include credit-based graduation and instructional hour requirements.

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