Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

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

By John M. Bridgeland & Robert Balfanz — March 27, 2020 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Follow the Education Week Opinion section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Opinion in your email inbox.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
When SEL Curriculum Is Not Enough: Integrating Social-Emotional Behavior Supports in MTSS
Help ensure the success of your SEL program with guidance for building capacity to support implementation at every tier of your MTSS.
Content provided by Illuminate Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
Professional Wellness Strategies to Enhance Student Learning and Live Your Best Life
Reduce educator burnout with research-affirmed daily routines and strategies that enhance achievement of educators and students alike. 
Content provided by Solution Tree
English-Language Learners Webinar The Science of Reading and Multilingual Learners: What Educators Need to Know
Join experts in reading science and multilingual literacy to discuss what the latest research means for multilingual learners in classrooms adopting a science of reading-based approach.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety A Sheriff Is Putting AR-15s in Every School. What Safety Experts Have to Say
The Madison County, N.C., school district made headlines for placing assault rifles in SRO offices ahead of the new school year.
6 min read
AR-15-style rifles are on display at Burbank Ammo & Guns in Burbank, Calif., June 23, 2022. Gun manufacturers have made more than $1 billion from selling AR-15-style guns over the past decade, and for two companies those revenues have tripled over the last three years, a House investigation unveiled Wednesday, July 27, found.
AR-15-style rifles are on display at gun store in Burbank, Calif. School safety experts say it's not unheard of for school districts to place such weapons in schools, but it requires serious consideration of the potential risks.
Jae C. Hong/AP
School Climate & Safety 3 Reasons Many Schools Don't Have Classroom Doors That Lock From the Inside
School facilities experts explain why what seems like a simple school-security is not so simple.
2 min read
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen as Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw testifies at a Texas Senate hearing at the state capitol, Tuesday, June 21, 2022, in Austin, Texas. Two teachers and 19 students were killed in the mass shooting in Uvalde.
A section of a classroom door from Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, is seen during a Texas Senate hearing on the deadly shooting there.
Eric Gay/AP
School Climate & Safety Alex Jones Ordered to Pay $45.2M More Over Sandy Hook Lies
A Texas jury has ordered conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to pay $45.2 million, adding to the $4.1 million he already has to pay.
6 min read
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Alex Jones attempts to answer questions during a trial at the Travis County Courthouse in Austin on Aug. 3.
Briana Sanchez/Austin American-Statesman via AP
School Climate & Safety Shouldn't Classroom Doors Lock From the Inside? Here's Why Many Don't
Lack of money, logistics, and fire safety regulations are keeping schools from changing door locks.
7 min read
Fifth grade teachers Edith Bonazza, left, and Patricia Castro teach their students at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district, on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020.
Twenty-five percent of U.S. public schools lack classroom doors that can be locked from the inside, according to the most recent data from the National Center on Education Statistics.
Nam Y. Huh/AP