COVID-19 changed education in America — permanently (part 1)

September 23, 2021

It’s been a school year like no other. Here’s what we learned.

There was a moment last spring when every parent and employer in America suddenly realized how deeply their lives and livelihoods depended on an institution too often in the background and taken for granted: the nation’s schools.

With almost no notice, adults and children found themselves in the middle of a massive national experiment in new ways of teaching and learning, and new ways of dividing responsibilities between home, school and work.

More than a year later, it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed education in America in lasting ways, and glimpses of that transformed system are already emerging. School districts are developing permanent virtual options in the expectation that after the pandemic, some families will stick with remote learning — even for elementary school kids. Hundreds of colleges have, for the first time, admitted a freshman class without requiring SAT or ACT scores, potentially opening admissions to the most selective colleges to more low-income students. And thousands of educators across the country, from preschool to college, are finding new ways to spark their students’ creativity, harness technology and provide the services they need to succeed.

The pandemic has unleashed a wave of innovation in education that has accelerated change and prompted blue-sky thinking throughout the system. What if more schools could enhance learning and nutrition by offering their students not just a free breakfast and lunch, but dinner and a snack? What if schools delivered books during the summer? What if high school art students had access to graphic design and architecture software?

It’s not all upside, of course; the pandemic has been a tragedy for many students’ educations. Stories of hungry children, of kids who have melted away from school, of community college students doing their work in fast food parking lots to pick up a Wi-Fi signal, have exposed how deeply inequity shapes the experiences and outcomes of America’s students. The disproportionate weight of the pandemic on Black and brown and low-income students has ignited calls for a dramatic reinvestment.

Before we can contemplate the arrival of some futuristic, high-tech utopia, millions of students have to be supported to catch up academically and process trauma, something that educators say will take several years at least. Some students need to be tracked down and convinced to come back to school at all. Policymakers have to commit to long-term change beyond the Band-Aids applied over the past year to a crumbling system. Even the most obvious gain of the pandemic — millions more students with access to technology — will be fleeting in the absence of structural improvements.

The challenge, said Jaclyn Ballesteros, an early childhood educator at KIPP Northeast Elementary, a charter school in Denver, is “how can we keep breaking down these barriers of inequity through what we learned in the pandemic?”

This year, Ballesteros has been teaching 4-year-olds alternately online and in person, forcing her to come up with jerry-rigged solutions like making a scale out of a coat hanger and shoelaces to teach the difference between heavy and light. The experts are “going to want to get the data, they’re going to want to get the research,” she said. “But you talk to any teacher, you talk to any Guatemalan grandma who’s had to take care of four kids while their mom and dad work — they know what they need.”

The bottom line is that this past year has provided, well, an education for everyone connected to American schools and colleges — and that’s pretty much everyone. Here are five of the biggest lessons we’ve learned, and what they might mean for the future of education in America.

No school — or college — is an island

We didn’t realize as a society how much we needed schools until they were shuttered. In addition to all the intellectual development and enrichment they offer to children, preschool and elementary school programs are the linchpins of a child care ecosystem that allows parents — especially mothers — to participate in the workforce. They feed millions of students breakfast and lunch, which has been proven to pay off over the long-term in better health and education outcomes. Many schools also offer crucial mental health counseling, medical and dental care, and identify cases of child abuse. When schools closed because of COVID-19, so did a vast system of supports for the nation’s children and their families.

Similarly, we learned over the past year how vulnerable college students are. Unless they have groceries, a computer and Wi-Fi, would-be college students don’t show up to campus at all — imperiling their chances of ever reaching the middle class. More than one in five college students have their own children, and the pandemic proved that lack of child care is one of the biggest barriers to college attainment.

It turns out that school and work are more deeply interconnected than we knew, and both depend on a network of social supports.

Consider what happened at Ganesha High School in the southern California city of Pomona, which serves a high-poverty student body. When COVID-19 hit, it was one of 15 high schools in Los Angeles County only months into a grant-funded pilot project designating them as “community schools,” hubs where all sorts of wraparound supports are available. That meant that when one student’s mother died from COVID-19 and their father was on a ventilator, and the student was staying with a relative in another city, the school was able to drop off groceries and connect the family to counseling. When the father came home from the hospital to bills piled up, the school arranged emergency aid to keep them in their home.

Jennifer L. Francev, the school’s principal, said that none of her efforts to improve the school’s academic performance will succeed if her students and their families are struggling with basic needs.

“It doesn’t matter how many programs I build … if they’re not getting a good night’s sleep because they’re sleeping in a car,” Francev said. “How can we as a society, say, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps’?” The community schools model is gaining support as a way to build a better system post-pandemic, but it’s not the only one. There are many other examples of schools keeping students engaged through a year of profound disruption by addressing their basic needs for food and shelter as well as their emotional needs, from phone call check-ins to devoting class time to offering support for what students are going through. As a result, in many places, home and school have never been better integrated.

Continued next week