It can be hard to draw lessons from a crisis when you are still in the crisis. While hope is on the horizon, we are definitely still living with the COVID-19 pandemic and its ongoing impact on education. Many school buildings remain closed. Those that are open face daily challenges around testing and social distancing. We don’t know what shape next year will take.
But one year into the closure of school buildings in America’s more than 13,000 school districts, some lessons and takeaways are already emerging around the importance of school communities, disparities that have worsened, and the support that students and families need.
Here are some early takeaways Chalkbeat has drawn from a year of pandemic disruption.
Schools can transform themselves.
When the pandemic struck and buildings were shuttered, educators had to reinvent their schools in record time. Suddenly teachers went from standing in front of students to logging into Zoom, mastering Zearn and Epic and all of the other learning platforms in a matter of days.
Creativity and improvisation were on display in every facet of schooling during the early months. Teachers held virtual office hours, while librarians offered home delivery of books. Buses were outfitted with WiFi and sent to disconnected neighborhoods, and bus drivers without routes were repurposed as social workers.
When schools began reopening, fast thinking and ingenuity were needed once again. Complicated hybrid schedules had to be drafted to abide by social distancing and limit the number of in-person students. Physical education was often moved outdoors. Plexiglass dividers were erected, while some teachers learned how to live-stream their lessons to students watching at home.
Will these changes reshape schools for years to come? It’s too soon to say. But the effects will still be with us in the next school year. New York City’s Mayor Bill de Blasio has already said he expects to have an in-person or fully remote option for families. Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has similarly said virtual learning will be an option for skittish families as well — but with substantive changes.
The digital divide shaped everything.
Uneven access to the internet was a concern for families long before COVID-19, but the pandemic made clear that some communities would have an especially tough time making remote school work. From the start, some schools struggled to get Chromebooks and iPads into the hands of all children and WiFi for families without it. There were bumps in the road, from cable company policies that punished families with unpaid bills to a lack of political will to expand broadband networks.
Internet and computer access has improved since a year ago, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey, but remains a challenge for 5% of students. While many schools have found ways to deliver devices to families who need them, expanding WiFi has proved trickier, even for ambitious programs to expand access such as Chicago Connected.
Schools provide so much more to students, particularly a food safety net, than many realized.
Widespread school shutdowns made it clear that many children rely on school for healthy meals. Before the pandemic, public schools in the U.S. provided about 30 million free or reduced price meals a day. With the economic hardship of the pandemic, even more families need help keeping kitchens stocked. A June Census Bureau survey found that 14 million children are hungry due to financial strain — more than five times the 2018 number.
School communities have stepped up, making pick-up convenient even when schools are closed or delivering meals to families uneasy about waiting in line. Perhaps this is no surprise — studies have shown the connection between hunger and academic achievement.
Relationships are critical.
When schools closed last spring, students suddenly lost access to a world of interactions with peers and adults. The resulting isolation has been hard on students. Many lost motivation to turn in assignments or participate in class. For others, mental health struggles worsened. The lack of face time has made it harder to spot students who need help, worrying educators.
The pandemic and remote learning did give some parents a front-row seat to their children’s education for the first time. Suddenly they were observing teachers greet children in the morning, read stories, instruct them in math and social studies. And many parents were called on to do far more, particularly for younger students. They assisted with art lessons, sometimes even acted as test proctors. And particularly for students who are fully remote, teachers have had to build relationships with families to support the children’s learning.
Numerous teachers have told Chalkbeat that even once school buildings fully reopen, they hope these strengthened bonds remain. “When parents go back to work and students go back to school, I hope this partnership carries on,” Queens teacher Christina Armas wrote. “We should be sharing more of our professional knowledge and experience with parents.”
Schools are political entities — and engines of the economy.
Governors, state lawmakers, mayors, superintendents, and school boards have all fought to control school reopening decisions and sometimes clashed with one another. Research has shown that reopening decisions have tracked more closely to an area’s share of Trump voters, not its virus case rates. Teachers unions have had a big influence. And while surveys indicate that reopening decisions have mostly aligned with parents’ desires, conflicts over school safety have caused real rifts in many communities.
The push to reopen schools also made clear how schools allow our economy to function. Closed schools exacerbated a child care crisis that pushed women from the workforce this year. And while schools appear likely to avoid big budget cuts now, for much of the year, a financial crisis loomed, which could have cost many of the country’s 8 million education jobs.