Early blueprints for schools dating back to the ancient Greeks proposed unique environments detached from time and space. Schools served as idyllic institutions dedicated to intellectual development and less a microcosm of the realities of the times. A beautiful idea — however, impractical in the complex landscapes in which schools would come to exist. Unprecedented events like the pandemic of COVID-19 generate the opposite of detachment and instead intensify proximity to the crisis in ways that are challenging to escape for students, educators, administrators, and their families.
Similar to the economic shocks resulting from the pandemic, education in the United States has experienced system-altering jolts. Social issues spanning digital access, accessibility, family involvement in education, teacher training, school capacity and leadership, and attendance, which have long languished on policy and research dockets, have now jumped to the forefront in ways we can no longer stall. With the unwavering presence of these issues, as well as inept preparedness, the severity of gaps in the education systems’ ability to respond and recover from crises has never been more abundantly clear. Jeff Schlegelmilch, the deputy director for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, was quoted recently stating, “Disasters exploit the underestimating of what could happen…Unfortunately, you can’t really make up for decades of underinvestment in one moment of panic.” Although the initial statement was not in the context of education directly, the applicability is undeniable in evaluating the capacity of our nation’s school systems to respond to COVID-19.
The rapid pivot to remote learning presents unprecedented challenges that extend far beyond digital technicalities and hardware. On April 6, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos authorized funding flexibilities to support continued learning during the COVID-19 national emergency. The new “flexibilities” authorized under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, will permit schools to reallocate existing K-12 education funds to technology infrastructure as well as teacher training on distance learning. Even though funding flexibilities move resources to areas of highest need during the national emergency, technological infrastructure is just one of many obstacles facing our nation’s schools. No amount of streamlining or funding flexibilities can realistically counter the fact that before the pandemic, annual funding gaps between white and non-white school districts and gaps between high- and low-income districts neared an estimated $23 billion.
I implore the Department of Education to more fervently engage the nation on the state of our schools in the coming months, as well as provide guidance to districts on damage assessments and recovery. As disasters do not clean slates, we must address and acknowledge the challenges facing our educational institutions, past, present, and future. To begin this process, we must take a page out of emergency management practice and start conducting an ongoing impact analysis where we are collecting and aggregating data on student and teacher absenteeism, as well as information from families on the challenges they face during this unique period of education. Student absenteeism is a looming trend as a result of the assumption that remote learning is an equitable process. Almost immediately, it was clear that this is not the case, with 41 percent of U.S. teens, 47 percent of which were public school students, reporting that they have not attended a single online or virtual class since moving to remote learning.
Additionally, in a short amount of time, school capacity or lack thereof was imposed and transferred to families with minimal preparation, with success contingent on distinct levels of family capacity and resources on top of navigating a pandemic. Such a transfer of responsibilities is a severe oversight that vastly miscalculates family capacity in terms of the number of devices available, internet connection, and the number of remote and essential workers within a given household in a way that no amount of remote learning resource lists will be able to mitigate. Clear leadership on both the human and the technological systems is of the utmost importance at this time.
NYC Public Schools announced on April 11 they will not reopen during the 2019-20 school year. Teachers, students and their families will finish the school year through remote learning. Proactively, the New York City DOE implemented an iPad distribution program to lend 300,000 internet-enabled iPads to students with the highest need. The difference in student learning that the iPads will make in broader context of balancing education and the devastation of pandemic in the times of COVID-19 remains to be seen. Although the iPad distribution program is a significant action in response to COVID-19, plans for recovery must also begin to form with similar intensity.
We must press school recovery as a critical line item for all candidates in the 2020 presidential election. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign touts “investing in all children from birth, so that regardless of their zip code, parents’ income, race, or disability, they are prepared to succeed in tomorrow’s economy.” As “tomorrow’s economy” is now more uncertain, this investment is all the more timely. Without a clear indication of the level of impact students are experiencing across the country, there is no promise we will adequately recover in a way that includes an accurate representation of our nation’s students and their families. We need leadership on how to account for the students who were underserved and absent from school during the pandemic and prioritize their needs, so the cycle of neglecting these students’ needs does not amplify after the crisis.
Despite the end of the academic year on the horizon, if we are hoping to “make this work” or “wait it out” until summer recess, we are then continuing to ignore our student’s needs and the broader social issues that reveal our shortcomings. Digital transformation inadvertently provides an objective reality check in which our leaders local, state, and federal must take note, and we must keep them accountable. The impact analysis of our nation’s schools begins now.
Joshua L. DeVincenzo is an instructional designer at Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.