On March 5, 2020, the Northshore School District became the first in the U.S. to shutter as the coronavirus overtook the well-heeled suburban communities just 25 minutes outside Seattle.
An outbreak at a senior home, which would ultimately be linked to at least 37 deaths, had already shuttered three schools in the 24,000-student district for deep cleaning, the central office was inundated with calls and emails from frantic parents and school staff reporting potential new exposures and more than 20% of students had stopped coming in at all.
“I believe the time has come for our district community to make an important shift,” district Superintendent Michelle Reid wrote to families the prior evening. “We are taking this strategic approach not because we think by doing so, we will stop an epidemic; we are simply trying to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Our job is to provide quality instruction to our students in a safe and welcoming environment, and we are no longer able to provide quality instruction and maintain an environment that is safe.”
Editorial Cartoons on Education
By the end of the month, every public school district in the U.S. would close its school buildings, grinding to a halt the country’s public education system for more than 50 million children.
One year later, most schools are offering some type of in-person learning, but the majority are far from returning all students, full-time, five days a week. While new vaccines provide a sense of hope, the ongoing pandemic and new variants anchor educators, school leaders, parents and children in a well of uncertainty. And so the country arrives at this grim anniversary in a state of ongoing tumult.
Even in a well-resourced and privileged school district like Northshore – where the median family income is upward of $100,000, the majority of students are white, few have disabilities or are English learners, and nearly every family has health insurance and access to broadband internet – the debate over reopening schools has splintered communities.
But the majority of the country’s children aren’t so lucky. For them, the pandemic exacerbated the already unequal education they receive, and in doing so, exposed the impact of generational inequality that is the U.S. education system.
“None of us knew that we’d be dealing with this type of timeline, this type of scope, this type of crisis for kids,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington – Bothell. “The inequalities that were hard-wired into our system have been fundamentally exposed. I don’t know if anybody should be surprised by the chasm that has opened up for kids, but here it is. And now what are we going to do about it – not just to meet the moment but to rebuild in a way that this won’t happen again?”
With the pandemic still preventing many districts from reopening for in-person learning and new variants threatening to reshutter others, the entire education community is bracing itself for what it already knows will be significant academic, social and emotional learning loss. And while all students are suffering, the country’s most disadvantaged – those who came into the pandemic with the fewest opportunities – are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.
Black and Hispanic students could be six to 12 months behind compared to white students, who could be four to eight months behind, according to McKinsey & Company analysts. And for the country’s 5 million English learners and 7 million students with disabilities, many of whom require specialized, hands-on help and therapy, the loss of an academic year is expected to set them back exponentially.
“You take underprivileged children whose parents have to choose between giving up jobs that get food on the table to look after their children or try to find a haphazard arrangement for child care,” says David Steiner, executive director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University. “Meanwhile, the children do not have internet access or a smartphone, and they are looking at reading packages while their wealthier peers in well-funded districts are getting five or six hours of integrated online learning. The impact on most underprivileged children is going to be really devastating.”
Though policymakers had been griping about it for more than a decade, the hasty move to remote learning thrust the digital divide into the spotlight, forcing those who control the purse strings to reckon with the repercussions of 17 million children who lacked devices and/or internet access in their homes. For months on end, reporters told stories about siblings forced to share their mother’s iPhone after she returned from work in order to access their lessons because it was the only internet connected device in their home, of students huddled in McDonald’s restaurants for access to WiFi and school districts retrofitting buses with broadband and parking them in neighborhoods with little to no internet access.
The mental health crisis among students skyrocketed. School counselors and social workers are overwhelmed, and families who can afford counseling for their children outside of what the school provides are met with months-long waitlists for appointments. Some communities are grappling with alarming upticks in self-harm and suicide, including for children as young as third grade.
“I want to be very clear about this: We can never eliminate risk altogether,” Steiner says. “Some children have died from COVID-19 and we can never forget that. On the other hand, there is an enormous amount of damage being done by keeping children out of school. So there is no wonderful option here that zeroes the risk. You’re choosing an option which is less bad.”
School leaders are sounding the alarm over missing children, driven in part by a significant number of parents forgoing or delaying kindergarten: In Texas, about 12,000 students are unaccounted for in Dallas and 5,000 in Austin. In Nevada’s Clark County, as many as 10,000 students didn’t return, as was the case for more than 4,000 students in Nashville, Tennessee. Michigan is estimating an enrollment decline of about 53,000 students and Florida is staring down a drop of 88,000 students.
Policymakers predict that between 3% and 5% of public school students won’t ever return, either because their parents have the flexibility to homeschool or the resources to send them to private schools. But tens of millions of others whose education was similarly upended by the pandemic will return to their neighborhood schools with a new, harsh realization – that traditional public schools never served them well.
Indeed, as many as 3 million children received zero in-person or online education since their schools shuttered at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, according to an October report from Bellwether Education Partners – one of the many sobering estimates of the havoc the pandemic is wreaking on the country’s most vulnerable students.
Of course it wasn’t all doom and gloom. There were silver linings, too. States and school districts achieved remarkable feats in the face of historic upheaval.
The state of Nevada found a way to get every single K-12 student a Chromebook and a WiFi hotspot through a public and private collaboration.
“From March to April it was a shoestring operation,” says Juliana Urtubey, who teaches pre-kindergarten and special education at Booker Elementary School in Las Vegas and who was recently named teacher of the year in Nevada. “In the fall, by the time we started school, every single family had a computer. That was a game changer.”
“We shifted from, ‘Oh, my God, I have to participate however I can,’ to, ‘OK, now I have the tools,'” says Urtubey, who then went to families’ homes to teach them from the other side of a window how to use the Chromebook. “It changed the game because it formalized the instruction.”
Educators and social workers in Miami-Dade schools, which have been open since October, identified more than 10,000 of their most vulnerable students, who were not logging on for classes and making little to no academic progress. Through intense outreach that included home visits, they were able to get 7,700 of them back into classrooms.
“That is the biggest liability at all levels, for our system, as well as for most systems across the country,” says Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. “No matter how well positioned you are with protocols and mitigation strategies, transparency, tools, even testing – none of that is helping students who are falling through the gaps, especially students who live in very fragile conditions and whose parents, for one reason or another and the spectrum is wide, decide to have them taught online.”
New York City, the largest school district in the U.S. serving more than 1 million children and once the epicenter of the pandemic, found a way to return students back into classrooms before the majority of other school districts in the country. Even high schoolers are set to return March 22.
And while there weren’t nearly enough bright spots, those that do exist were made possible almost entirely because of the dedication of educators, who, while processing the grief of losing their own family members and friends, falling ill themselves and navigating the crush of anxiety that the pandemic ushered in, managed to create safe spaces for students and hold their hands – virtually, of course – as they struggled through their own demons.
“What I saw was this incredible rising up of teachers saying we are going to do this because our kids are important, education is important, making sure we’re meeting the needs of our students is important and we’re going to find a way to make that happen,” says Maureen Stover, a biology and earth and environmental science teacher at Cumberland International Early College High School in North Carolina, where she was recently named teacher of the year. “And even though there has been some criticism of teachers in the past couple of months, I still see teachers doing that. Teachers are like, ‘You know what? I don’t have time to listen to people who are going to complain. I only have time for my kids and making sure my kids are the priority.'”
“That’s a really incredible testament to educators and our dedication to our students and to their academic and social and emotional learning needs,” she says. “We’re here to be educators and that means we’re here for our kids.”
Now, a year later, whether and how to reopen schools safely has become the most politicized debate of the global pandemic that will, at least in some ways, alter the public education system forever in the U.S.
As it stands, roughly three-quarters of students attend a school that offers some type of in-person learning, according to the school data tracker Burbio. But that could mean anything from offering in-person to only the youngest students or those with disabilities, to offering a hybrid model that allows students to return to classrooms for two or three days each week.
For the most part, school districts struggled – and are still struggling – to figure out how to fully reopen safely, five days a week, for all students. Few have figured out how to reopen high schools, which is making policymakers increasingly anxious.
The reasons are as varied as the school districts themselves. Some lack funds necessary to implement the recommended safeguards to safely reopen. Others are located in neighborhoods where community transmission is still too high. A handful are in high-profile labor disputes over safety protocols and vaccination priority for school staff.
President Joe Biden pledged the majority of K-8 schools would reopen for in-person learning during the first 100 days of his administration, but the reality is that he has very little control over that since the bulk of decision-making authority falls to local districts.
There are signs the gears are beginning to turn.
The CDC released long-awaited school reopening guidelines, the Education Department’s Institute for Education Sciences is creating a database of school districts reopening strategies, teachers and school staff are being prioritized for vaccinations, and Congress is on the verge of passing a new relief package that would direct $130 billion K-12 schools to help with the costs of reopening. Education Department officials recently published a handbook for school leaders about how to turn CDC’s recommendations into a reality, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, who spent the first few days on the job touring reopened schools in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, is in the process of planning a school reopening summit to bring together the country’s best educators and K-12 policymakers to make a plan for how the country moves forward.
But talk to educators and school leaders and they’ll say moving forward can’t mean a return to the way things were – that the pandemic exposed too many inexcusable tears in the fabric of the U.S. education system and that reopening schools has to be about more than just increasing the number of students with access to in-person learning.
“My greatest concern is that in our quest to go back to schools and reopen face to face that we transition back to what we considered as normal,” Stover says. “Normal was not OK and normal was not good enough. What this shift has demonstrated to us is the inequities that educators have always known existed in the public education system have now been highlighted to policymakers and to the public. So I see 2021 as the pivotal year we start to address these inequities.”
At the heart of any redesign of public school in the U.S., they say, must be a singular focus on the most disadvantaged students and moving at warp speed to repair the academic, social and emotional learning loss they endured, along with a permanent plan to more equitably fund their schools and train educators who specialize in the types of additional supports they need.
Plans are underway for longer school years, summer programs and small-groups tutoring and therapy. But in sum, they say, we need to come out of the pandemic with a stronger sense of how to do better for children.
“It’s a tall order,” Lake says. “We are going to have many years of recovery. But we have to move mountains for these kids.”