Special Report
Future of Work

The COVID-19 Economy Is Putting Vulnerable Students’ Career Prospects at High Risk

By Alyson Klein — March 02, 2021 8 min read
Hispanic teenage girl writing and using computer

There’s no question the pandemic is transforming not just the educational landscape, but also the world of work that schools are preparing students for.

Through online learning, educators are getting a glimpse of the virtual working skills that students are likely to need for the digital workplace of the future, including time management and collaboration and communication online.

But it’s unclear if students in virtual or hybrid learning environments are picking up these skills during the pandemic, especially the most vulnerable kids.

To make matters worse, social distancing measures have made it tough for students to find work-based learning experiences, an especially big setback for students in career and technical education programs in underserved communities who are planning to enter the workforce straight out of high school.

The pandemic, meanwhile, is prompting surging interest in health-care careers among high school students, while fewer teenagers are eyeing job opportunities in retail or hospitality, industries hit hard by job losses during the pandemic.

How are schools handling these changes? And what students are educators most worried about regarding career prospects?

For answers to those and other questions related to equity and the future of work, the EdWeek Research Center conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,060 educators in late January. Here’s what they told us:

Big concerns about low-income kids, special populations

A little over a third of educators surveyed said that the changes to K-12 schooling during the pandemic have hit low-income students harder than any other group. Nearly a quarter said the same of students in special education. Just 3 percent said no student group had been negatively impacted by the pandemic when it comes to career preparation.

Eight percent of respondents picked English-language learners as the group of students that will suffer the worst impact. That’s the population that Matthew McCrea, the head of school at Meridian Public Charter School in Washington, is most worried about. The vast majority of the English-language Learners who attend his school are from households where none of the adults speak English fluently. That means these students are missing out on hearing the language in informal settings, such as the cafeteria or the hallway. Learning the language is vital for success in the workplace for these students.

“We’re not going to get that back,” he said. “I don’t know how you make up the lost year.”

An equal share of those surveyed, 8 percent, suggested that rural students were at the biggest disadvantage, largely because slow—or nonexistent—internet connections make it nearly impossible for many of them to access online learning and develop the kinds of virtual working skills that could open doors to future jobs far from their isolated rural communities.

That was the case for kids in the 200-student Giant City Consolidated School District in Carbondale, Ill. The school was all-virtual for two months this school year and is now doing a hybrid model, said Belinda Hill, the superintendent and principal.

Other nearby districts were able to purchase hotspots using federal relief funds, but that wasn’t an option for Giant City. Because of its small size, the district only received about $30,000 in aid, not enough to cover the cost of devices and connectivity for every student who needed one, Hill explained. Meanwhile, local internet companies charge $75 a month to bring families the kind of access kids need to be able to learn virtually, a hefty price-tag for many in this southern Illinois town.

The district did its best, Hill said, buying Chromebooks for all students and opening up its parking lot so kids could sit in their parents’ cars and take advantage of the building’s Wi-Fi. School officials gave some students paper packets. Teachers and paraprofessionals conducted cellphone face-time sessions with kids to help with difficult material.

“We really went above and beyond to try to support students,” Hill said. “But obviously some parents didn’t feel that way.”

Help needed to develop time management, collaboration, and communication skills

It’s likely the pandemic will accelerate a trend that’s already underway: More jobs are likely to take place, at least part of the time, in digital workspaces, rather than physical ones. Virtual schooling seems like a trial run for that future. But it has also revealed that students need to learn some basic teleworking skills, educators said.

More than 60 percent of educators surveyed said students appear to need help with working independently, time management, and/or being self-motivated.

That has been the most persistent problem. Students will not do things in a timely manner. Then they get to the end of the semester and they want to withdraw because they are failing and it’s too late.

Mount Markham Senior High School in West Winfield, N.Y., is using a hybrid model and is struggling with just getting its students—many of whom live in trailer parks—to attend virtual school, said the principal, Victor Zampetti.

“We’re seeing a lack of motivation when the kids aren’t here all the time,” he said. “We can’t motivate them if we can’t get them to turn the button on. It’s just a mess.”

Amy Covington, a Spanish teacher at Enterprise High School in southeastern Alabama, said her students, who are doing a hybrid of online and in-person learning, aren’t used to such an unstructured schedule.

“That has been the most persistent problem. Students will not do things in a timely manner,” Covington said. “Then they get to the end of the semester and they want to withdraw because they are failing and it’s too late.”

Virtual learning has prompted some schools to teach skills like how to send a proper email, a form of communication frequently used in business, but rarely by kids.

“In our English department, their goal for the quarter was proper emailing etiquette,” said Molly Brawley, the principal of Niles High School in southwestern Michigan. It’s a hurdle for kids to “just understand that you don’t email like you text.”

Students’ career aspirations are shifting

The pandemic may also have a lasting impact on where students decide to take their careers after high school. Nearly two-thirds of surveyed educators with some involvement in high school education—63 percent—said the crisis changed their students’ career aspirations “some” or “a lot.” Another quarter thought it had at least “a little” bit of an impact.

Interest in a health careers academy at Niles High School has “quadrupled” since the start of the pandemic, Brawley said. The program may even have to hire an additional teacher.

In fact, 55 percent of educators surveyed said that interest in pursuing a health-care field had spiked among their students. Thirty-nine percent expected they would be more likely to encourage students to consider a career in that area.

On the flip side, a third of educators said that interest in retail careers has declined during the pandemic, while another 40 percent said students seem less inclined to go into the restaurant/hospitality industry, which has been hit hard by the pandemic.

Technology was already a hot career track, but it has become even more popular since the start of the pandemic. Fifty-seven percent of educators surveyed said they have seen an uptick in interest in the information technology field since the start of the pandemic.

With online learning, “they are just so immersed in technology. It surrounds them constantly,” said Kyle Mathews, the principal of Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafeyette, Colo., not far from Boulder. “They are just finding that the more that they can learn programming skills, the more they have the resources they need to work effectively online.”

What’s more, students are figuring out that teleworking can open new doors for them. Doug Kittle, the principal of Aurora High School in central Nebraska, said the pandemic has showed his students that they can do a wide range of professional jobs from their small, rural community.

“Mom and dad are both working out of the home right now. The technology of the pandemic has changed the whole interest level,” he said. Students are thinking, “I can have a great job with a company pretty much anywhere and be living in Aurora, Nebraska.”

Those future opportunities, of course, are predicated on the idea that all students have access to technology in school and at home, which the pandemic has proven is not the case.

Fewer internships are available now

Social distancing measures have also cut into–or completely halted–work-based learning experiences. A little more than a third of educators surveyed–34 percent–said that “most” or “all” student internships had been scrapped during the pandemic. Just 15 percent reported that there had been no change.

Some schools have simply had to get creative about work experiences, including Aurora High School.

“This year has been our biggest challenge placing students,” Kittle said. Health-care work experiences are very popular, but this year, local clinics didn’t want students coming in and bringing new potential COVID-19 exposure.

So for the first time, some students interned with the school nurse. Other students “had to do more of a job shadow than a full-blown internship,” Kittle said.

But others say their students are in a tough spot.

Paul Tighe, the superintendent of the Saddle Mountain Unified school district west of Phoenix, is worried about high school students who were planning to graduate with industry-recognized credentials. In normal times, students can earn a Medical Assistant’s certification or qualifications in building and trade or robotics.

But most of those tracks—particularly health care—require a certain number of hours of on-the-job training, a tall order given social distancing rules.

“How do you practice taking blood pressure on somebody virtually? You can’t,” Tighe said. “These specialized programs really require hands-on learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 2021 edition of Education Week as The COVID-19 Economy Is Putting Vulnerable Students’ Career Prospects at Risk

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