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School Climate & Safety Opinion

COVID-19 Is Exposing the Gaps in Our Education System. Let’s Start Fixing Them

By John Bridgeland & Robert Balfanz — March 27, 2020 4 min read
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As COVID-19 spreads throughout America, urgent action is being taken at the federal, state, and local levels to support our health-care system and economy. But as schools shutter and millions of students attempt to learn from home or shelters, it is not too soon to think about what we can learn to strengthen our education system the next time there is a national crisis.

Through our work, we have partnered for over 15 years to help high schools, districts, and states graduate all students prepared for college and careers. Now, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, we are hearing from those school and community leaders across America with a long list of new worries.

See Also: Coronavirus and Schools

Some district leaders express concerns about the quality of digital learning and how remote learning can accommodate the needs of vulnerable students, particularly those who are English-language learners, have disabilities, or are homeless. Other district leaders have the challenge of coordinating with parents in communities where 20 or more languages are spoken.

We have also heard from leaders worried about losing access to the tutors, peer mentors, counselors, and other adults who provide the extra academic and social-emotional supports many students need to succeed in school and graduate from high school. Other educators wonder how competency can be measured when seat time is no longer a reliable yardstick that high school students have attained sufficient course credits to prepare them for college.

Administrators and nonprofit leaders are asking how shuttered schools can still play a role in producing much-needed meals or offering homeless students a place to wash their clothes or connect to host homes.

Leaders have been relating their concerns about the other vital roles their schools play that have been put on pause. Schools are important hubs in the provision of physical and mental-health care and more broadly in providing a community and connection to caring and supportive adults. In a time when all students need postsecondary schooling or training to earn a family-supporting wage, high schools have become a vital link in connecting high school seniors to higher education and workforce training.

We also should not let this moment pass without doing for education what inevitably will occur for our health-care system."

We have heard hopeful stories as well. Across the country, districts are setting up hotlines to help teachers, students, and parents navigate the new world of digital learning. Some schools—including in Green Bay, Wis.; Montgomery County, Md.; and Winston-Salem, N.C.—are lending mobile hotspots to students without reliable internet. Bus routes that used to carry students in Wayne Township, Ind.; Manchester, N.H.; and Kingsport, Tenn., now transport meals and school supplies for vulnerable students. In Newbury, Mass., school counselors are video conferencing with students to offer mental-health supports.

Los Angeles Unified School District boldly proposed opening 40 Family Resource Centers to help with childcare and other needs but had to reverse their decision over safety concerns for the children and the workers. We can learn from this experience too.

Education leaders should rightly focus on addressing these urgent needs now, so we must all also start cataloguing and amplifying these kinds of innovative responses. But we also should not let this moment pass without doing for education what inevitably will occur for our health-care system: analyzing the gaps to ensure our systems are better prepared for the next crisis—which may be COVID-19 again this fall.

We need to quickly expand the network of adults who can support students electronically in the event of a school closure. We need to provide work, learning, and postsecondary guidance for students who graduate from high school during a crisis but are unable to secure or afford postsecondary educational or training opportunities in the fall. We need to rapidly scale up national-service efforts that mobilize peer mentors, tutors, and more intensive supports for off-track students through programs like City Year and Communities in Schools.

The strengths and weaknesses of a strongly decentralized education system with more than 13,000 school districts with different challenges are laid bare when schools have to respond rapidly to unexpected events.

For every school that is able to provide every one of its students with a Chromebook, three books to take home, and parent hotlines to navigate the steps needed to arrange internet access, there are other schools that don’t have the capacity to help families who lack home internet access. Particularly for students on tribal lands and in remote communities, lack of broadband access can further widen educational inequity during a school closure.

State departments of education need to provide districts with clear and evidence-based guidance on how to respond when prolonged school closures are necessary. They must be prepared to identify where and what additional resources are needed during a crisis and—in partnership with the federal government—make these resources available. Otherwise, future crises will only accelerate inequities in life outcomes by ZIP code.

What’s needed is a national effort, driven by educators, students, parents, and nonprofit and business leaders working with schools and policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels to strengthen our education system in times of national crisis.

In the midst of this crisis, we should already be sharing the innovative ways in which schools, communities, states, and the federal government are working to close gaps. After the pandemic subsides, a commission of state and local educators in partnership with the federal government should be formed to conduct a comprehensive review. In addition to studying what didn’t work, we should also investigate what did.

We know that future natural, man-made, or health crises are coming. We need to grab this opportunity to envision a stronger education system for the future. Let’s not miss this chance.

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