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Rethinking Education For A Post-Pandemic Future

broken No. 2 pencil.
photo by Flickr user Eric, licensed under CC BY-ND

It has been about 10 months since the pandemic began to reshape public life in America. But for many kids, 2020 represents much more than 10 months of lost educational progress.

As scientists and policymakers raced to determine how best to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, schools across the country shut their doors. Many of these shutdowns occurred practically overnight. Students grappled with the challenges of virtual learning, independent work without direct instructor oversight or, in some cases, a temporary lack of any instruction at all. This fall, some kids physically went back to school full time, others part time, and some are fully remote. All these approaches represent educators trying to do their best under the constraints they face. But they also have real, and lasting, consequences for students.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not like any event most of us have lived through. But we can consider the educational impact of other disasters that profoundly disrupted daily life. For example, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina ended the routines of New Orleans for months – in some cases years, or permanently. Families’ displacement, economic losses and other trauma led to disastrous outcomes for many local students. According to research quoted by Pacific Standard, nine months after the storm one in five school-age children were missing more than 10 days of school per month or were not attending at all. Five years later, 34% of students had been held back at least one year in school, compared to a regional baseline of 19%. According to the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, between 14% and 20% of students who left school because of Katrina never returned.

The pandemic is not a hurricane. Katrina’s effects, while devastating, were limited by both geography and the storm’s duration. But these findings serve as a warning as we consider the pandemic’s educational effects in the long term, as well as the immediate future.

As various observers have pointed out, closing schools has had knock-on effects. Many students rely on public schools to provide meals, health services, socialization and other benefits. Those losses are real, but beyond the scope of this post. Yet even when focusing solely on education, 2020’s school closures have been a disaster.

In the spring, many schools suspended grading as students and teachers alike tried to adjust to online or distance teaching. This fall, assessment has returned and illuminated widespread problems. The Los Angeles Times reported in early November that middle and high students in the LA area have experienced sharply dropping grades. Many formerly solid students are seeing Ds and Fs for the first time. Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of Education Trust–West, told the LA Times, “This significantly complicates high school graduation, college and career preparation, and college admissions. California’s students will be experiencing the impact of COVID-19 for years to come.”

Teachers are doing their best, but they are often working with constrained resources. “We know this isn’t a good way to teach,” Clint Silva, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Colorado, told The New York Times. “We want to hold kids accountable. We want to see their progress, be in the classroom with them and see them struggle and overcome that. Instead, we are logging in for an hour a day, and kids are turning their cameras off and staying quiet and not talking to us.”

With vaccines on the way and improving means of treatment, we can assume that most students will be back in the classroom in 2021, or not much beyond. But the effects of the pandemic will not vanish the moment schools reopen for good. And not every child will return. In a report issued in late November, UNICEF observed, “Depending on their age, gender, and disability or socio-economic status many children (especially adolescents) do not return to school after long closures and many more are expected to suffer permanent losses to their learning.”

Many commentators have theorized that the U.S. faces a “K-shaped recovery” for the economy. In this model, financial markets recover and grow, while the flow of goods and services struggles or worsens. We may see something similar in education. Students with greater access to resources to begin with may make up for lost time, while those who were already struggling fall behind or drop out. Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at NYU, told Yahoo Finance that the growing gap between kids could lead to tremendous societal losses in the future. “We’re going to lose 50% of our leaders and our scientists,” Galloway predicted.

Some observers are tempted to chalk up the widening gap to a difference in parental effort, but such an analysis is far from straightforward. A Census Bureau survey in May found that both low- and high-income households were spending around 13 hours a week helping children with education during school closures. The fact is, almost no one was prepared for a switch to virtual learning. While the burdens fell most heavily on lower income households, no one was immune.

There are no easy answers to this problem, but once a vaccine is widely available, we will face the question of how to repair the existing educational damage. Some states tried out methods over the summer. McKinsey and Company noted that Tennessee recruited college students to tutor younger children who had fallen behind in the spring, for example.

But for comprehensive solutions, short- and long-term, schools will need government support. Back in March, K-12 schools received a collective $13.5 billion, with the stipulation that private schools receive part of the funding. School officials and policy researchers agreed this cash infusion was not nearly enough. Data reported by The New York Times suggested an average school district with 3,700 students spread across eight buildings would need to spend an extra $1.8 million to follow state regulations and federal health and safety guidelines.

Many Americans agree the government should offer support to struggling public schools. They may disagree on the form that support should take. Many state and local governments are stretched to the breaking point due to the pandemic’s economic damage and the cost of addressing the crisis. It appears the federal government will need to step in, but this raises the question of what any educational aid should look like. Like our health care system, our education system comprises a huge number of moving parts, and any changes could have unintended consequences.

Our country’s leaders may want to take this moment to reconsider our education system on a fundamental level. This year was one in which the importance of good education was never clearer. It was also one in which the systemic inequalities and shortfalls in many of our schools faced sudden, strict scrutiny.

All schools struggled due to the pandemic, but in many places, parents had occasion to directly compare the struggles of public and private schools. This summer, as the future of public school remained unclear in many places, private schools in Minnesota, Washington, D.C., and across the country saw major spikes in community interest. According to a survey by the National Association of Independent Schools, as reported by CNBC, by mid-October 60% of private schools were operating in person. Only 5% were fully online. For parents working full-time, the prospect of having to pay for child care or having to cut back on a parent’s work schedule if public schools went partially or fully virtual changed the math on paying private school tuition.

Private schools had several advantages in staying open. Because they do not need to report to a school district, and beyond that, to state legislators, independent schools are generally more nimble and better able to respond quickly to changing circumstances. They can make individual choices that fit their communities, rather than having to coordinate across a district. Most private school teachers aren’t unionized and the schools’ curriculums are not as strictly regulated, making for less bureaucracy. Administrators and teachers have more room to try out creative solutions, and to course correct if necessary.

In many places, though not all, private schools also have more financial resources than their public counterparts. They may have fewer students per teacher to begin with; newer, larger facilities; or more technology to support students and teachers alike. Well-funded private schools can also handle acquiring personal protective equipment or the technology to perform regular temperature checks, which many public schools may struggle to do.

Obviously, the solution cannot be to send all students to private schools. About 90% of American students currently attend public school. Even if policy changes – such as allowing parents to use 529 savings accounts to pay for full K-12 tuition – put independent options in reach for more students, they will remain a minority option. A flight toward private schools among parents who have the means to pay tuition could also further deepen the class divide.

However, seeing the difference between schools that handled the pandemic better and those that did worse may sell more parents on the merits of charter schools or other systems in which schools can compete for public funding. If we want schools to compete this way, it is important to develop a robust system to ensure the government financially supports that competition.

Some places are already trying this to some extent. For example, Indiana allows the funding that would have gone to the school district to follow a student who leaves the district. State Rep. Robert Behning told the NCSL as of early October, “We’ve heard that as many as 25% of students chose homeschooling or virtual options.”

The pandemic may also offer an opportunity to consider whether we should keep preparing every student for a traditional college experience. While some established colleges and universities have experimented with online offerings, the general sense remained that virtual learning was a diminished option. Many college students could benefit from a more flexible, less costly alternative. A recent column for the Harvard Business Review argued that “This moment is likely to be remembered as a critical turning point between the ‘time before,’ when analog on-campus degree-focused learning was the default, to the ‘time after,’ when digital, online, career-focused learning became the fulcrum of competition between institutions.”

We might also consider that not every student needs college at all. The pandemic underscored the importance of many skilled workers by labeling them “essential.” Some of those careers call for apprenticeships or other vocational training. By beefing up vocational offerings during or directly following high school, we could both increase the number of workers entering vital professions and reduce the number of young people taking on burdensome educational debt. We may already be seeing the beginning of a shift. Figures quoted by The Wall Street Journal show that short-term credential classes increased by 70% this year compared to 2019. The number of apprenticeships nearly doubled between 2012 and 2019. We could see real benefits by subsidizing or otherwise financially supporting skills-oriented secondary and postsecondary options.

No single change will undo the educational damage the pandemic caused, or fix the existing problems that it illuminated. But we need to take a close look at how we can help students make up for lost time. While we’re there, we could do worse than taking the opportunity to reimagine what we want American education to look like, even once the worst of the pandemic fades into memory.

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