English-language learners, students with disabilities, students of color and students who identify as LGBTQ faced the most significant hardships related to access and opportunities during the pandemic, while nearly all students have experienced mental health challenges, according to a report recently released by the U.S. Department of Education.

Also affected were Asian American students who faced increased risk of harassment and discrimination; as well as students who suffered heightened risk of sexual abuse, harassment or violence, especially girls.

The disparities and mental health challenges, many of which existed before the pandemic but were exacerbated by it, are “cause for great concern,” according to the report. Although not a legal analysis, the report does point out that disparities can sometimes be evidence of legal injuries under federal civil rights laws, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The documentation the Education Department collected about COVID-19’s effects on certain student groups was based on interviews and publicly available sources, such as assessment results and surveys from education administrative organizations. According to K-12Dive, the report is part of a “developing story” on how the pandemic has worsened educational opportunities for marginalized students.

Attention to these disparities is vital for equity in K-12 education during pandemic recovery, the report said, and states and districts should close opportunity gaps through money from three relief packages equaling nearly $200 billion, of which districts have flexibility to spend on academic and social-emotional learning supports, equitable digital resources and more.

The education department also released guidance for how school systems should prevent disproportionate budget cuts or staff reductions. The maintenance of equity guidance will help schools that have historically been underfunded and rely more on state funding compared to districts with fewer underserved students.

This guidance also details the calculations for how to protect high-need school districts from cuts in state funding in fiscal years 2022 and 2023 on a per-student basis and states that high-poverty school districts receive at least as much in state funding in fiscal year 2022 and fiscal year 2023 as they did in fiscal year 2019 on a per-student basis.