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The Coronavirus Pandemic Poses Major Challenges To U.S. Students and Their Teachers—and Exacerbates Existing Education Inequities

Here is what these mean for education policy

WASHINGTON - A new report by EPI economist Emma García and research associate Elaine Weiss reviews pre-pandemic education literature and data that has emerged during the pandemic to look at how students’ learning and development and teachers’ instruction could be affected by the distance-learning necessitated by the coronavirus. The report draws on the reviews to offer a three-pronged plan for schools and the U.S. education system: immediate relief, short-term recovery, and long-term rebuilding.

In early spring, as the pandemic was hitting its first peak, the virus forced nearly all of the over 55 million U.S. children under the age of 18 to stay home. Not only did these children lack daily access to school and the basic supports schools provide for many students, they lost out on group activities, team sports, and recreational options such as pools and playgrounds. The shutdown of schools, compounded by the associated public health and economic crises, poses major challenges to our students and their teachers—and exacerbates existing economic and racial inequities that shape educational disparities.

“Our public education system was not built, nor prepared, to cope with a situation like this—we lack the structures to sustain effective teaching and learning during the shutdown, and to provide the safety net supports that many children receive in school,” said García. “While we do not yet know the exact impacts, we do know that the interruption and disruptions have certainly affected children’s learning, along with their progress on other developmental skills. We also know that, given the various ways in which the crisis has widened existing socioeconomic disparities and how these disparities affect learning and educational outcomes, educational inequities are growing. Both aspects will be needed to be made up for in the aftermath of the pandemic.”

Earlier EPI research found that nearly 16% of eighth-graders do not have a desktop or laptop computer at home on which to follow their classes. And a 4.2% lack home internet, the other essential instrument for remote study. These challenges tend to be far greater for low-income students, students of color, and students in rural area. Due to this “digital divide” and many other factors, these children are most likely to lose more substantial learning time. And their families are also most likely to experience compounded stresses—such as job loss, the loss of health care, the lack of paid sick leave, the lack of child care, and the need to work on site in “essential” jobs that put them at health risks: all these factors make it much harder for these families to attend to children’s needs. At the same time, children are suddenly learning remotely but lack the devices and experience required for its effectiveness, and in a home-schooling environment but lack the intentional, structured resources that are typically made available to students who self-select into home-schooling.

In order to reduce these consequences, the authors propose a set of sequenced education interventions and comprehensive services as we move out from this pandemic. Specifically, three-pronged plan requires making the necessary investments to:

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1. Provide relief by putting school systems on a solid footing to give effective remote instruction and supports as the crisis continues.

2. Recover by making new investments to help schools and students compensate for lost learning during the quarantine period.

3. Rebuild by laying the foundations for a shift toward an education system that understands the complexity of education production and its multiple components, untaps children’s talents, works equally for all students, and reflects the value we place on education as a society.

“Like the rest of the country, our education system is facing unprecedented challenges. The ultimate consequences of the pandemic for K–12 education in the United States will be a function of the quality, intensity, and comprehensiveness of our response to counter the pandemic’s negative lasting effects,” said Weiss. “With the right vision, however, we can leverage this moment to ensure that public education plays a critical role in restoring the human and social capital in our country, and readying us for the next challenges, big or small, that we may confront in the future.”

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The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit Washington D.C. think tank, was created in 1986 to broaden the discussion about economic policy to include the interests of low- and middle-income workers. Today, with global competition expanding, wage inequality rising, and the methods and nature of work changing in fundamental ways, it is as crucial as ever that people who work for a living have a voice in the economic discourse.

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