Pandemic’s Hardships Offer Chance to Improve Education in the U.S.

Nearly a year has passed since the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a massive school shutdown across the United States. In a matter of weeks, more than 100,000 public and private schools were forced to close their doors and suspend in-person learning. The pivot to online at-home learning caused major and immediate disruptions for millions of children and their parents, who found themselves scrambling to create ad-hoc home school and child care arrangements while also working.

School closures were also a reminder that the public school system provides not only instruction to 50 million school-age children, but also internet access, meals, child care, extracurriculars, and a range of therapies and mental and physical health services.

No one was prepared for the pandemic, but the hardships still being endured offer opportunity to transform and improve education in the U.S.

[MORE: How Keeping Schools Open Helped French Women Return to the Workplace]

The public school system across the country, made up of thousands of independent districts that are governed and funded locally, was especially vulnerable to a lack of national guidance and support. Closing schools shut down a lot more than in-person instruction, from assessments and assemblies to all the supplemental services of schools, including serving meals, providing medical and media services, hosting after-school care and clubs, parent-teacher meetings, music recitals, basketball games, science and wellness fairs, and countless other community events.

School and district plans were many and varied, each with its own sets of scenarios and lists of questions, concerns, and challenges. The logistical considerations of keeping schools operating in the face of a public health crisis were staggering to leaders. Just months into the pandemic, a New Jersey superintendent penned a list of 451 questions, a riff off of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel, to describe the scope of such a massive, decentralized challenge.

As we approach the year mark of the pandemic, concerns continue to deepen about the impact of school closures, especially for those with the greatest needs. While students and families already familiar and flush with technology may have adapted to remote school, others were all but locked out of learning, including the 16 million K-12 public school students who lack high speed internet access. Students with disabilities had to forgo most of the services they need, including one-on-one support, speech, physical, and occupational therapies, counseling services, and medical and health services. Remote learning was also a loss for the more than 5 million English learner students, who face the double task of learning a new language and academic content, as well as for all of the students who look to school-based staff for a range of social and emotional supports.

Meanwhile, worries are mounting about the mental and physical health of children and teens whose learning lives are centered around a computer screen. And dire warnings of prolonged learning loss — “the COVID slide”– have alerted everyone to a problem that occurs every summer for our poorest students, who lack the camps, trips, and tutoring of their wealthier peers and consequently slip months or even grade levels behind. These are the students who will lose the most, as pandemic school closures compound already accumulated loss from a system that closes its doors each summer.

Teachers, too, are struggling. Long before the pandemic, teachers reported in national surveys feeling unsupported, underpaid, and overwhelmed, and states and districts were grappling with teacher shortages, especially in areas like special education, bilingual education, and science and math. Now, teachers face the added risk and fear of contracting the virus at a job that has grown even tougher, with many providing both online and in-person instruction simultaneously while also enforcing strict health protocols in school buildings.

Meanwhile, reeling from pandemic-related losses, state and local governments are making substantial cuts to the public sector workforce, including nearly a half million public school teachers, teacher assistants, nurses, maintenance workers and bus drivers. Fewer staff means more work for those who stay, and teachers are increasingly looking to leave before retirement. While typically about 8 percent of teachers leave the profession each year, a survey of teachers in 2020 found a third who said they were likely to leave their jobs this school year.

There is no sunny side to the losses of the past year, which will be felt for a long time and far worse by some. But there are a lot of lessons that can be leveraged for the immediate challenge of getting back to school and for the long-term health and positive transformation of our education system.

For one, we have made great strides with technology, both for expanding online and hybrid learning models and for ensuring access to devices and the internet to all who need it. During the first months of the pandemic, district and school staff distributed millions of laptops and other devices to students, as well as cell phones and hotspots to families and communities. Calls for expanded internet access and wireless technologies can no longer be ignored and a new federal emergency fund is now advancing that will dramatically expand connectivity for children, families, and communities who have gone without for too long.

A year of online learning has also forced individual educators and whole systems to build and flex new remote teaching and learning muscles, identifying which practices were worthwhile and which were worth tossing. As a result, even when the pandemic has passed, distance learning will be easier, better, and more accessible to all. The creation of Individual Remote Learning Plans, for example, provide a vehicle to translate school-based special education needs and accommodations for remote learning.

The pandemic has also led to a clarion call to integrate health and education, bolstering support for school models that support the broader health of the community and for school environments that prevent the spread of illness and infection. Community school models, designed as hubs of academic, social, and health services, were among the best prepared to respond to the interconnected crises of the COVID shutdown. Already closely connected to families and with established community partnerships, these schools were able to efficiently mobilize support efforts and quickly distribute resources and accurate information about unemployment benefits, housing, technology, and health services.

We are also poised to improve the state and structure of our school buildings, where children and staff spend hours each day. Often set apart from the central concerns of schooling, the condition of buildings has drawn new attention amidst the pandemic as epidemiologists and public health experts point to windows, HVAC systems, as tools in the fight against Covid-19. The concern is long overdue: nationally, more than half of public school districts are in need of building system updates or wholesale replacements, costs covered primarily by local taxes and thus leaving poor districts in far worse shape to both avoid the virus and provide a safe and healthy environment for learning and development.

Perhaps more than anything, a year of school closures and remote learning has revealed just how much we rely on public schools, and how essential it is that we build a stronger, more equitably funded, and well-staffed public education system to support them.

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