The closure of schools in the middle of the semester and the transition to online learning have forced a big toll in American education. As with the health sector, the education system risks being profoundly transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It reveals gaps across the country,” says Bob Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education and director of the Everyone Graduates Center. “I hope people will see this as an opportunity to fill those gaps.”
Balfanz says the gaps fall into two categories: macro-level challenges that exist at the school district level and micro-level challenges that affect individual school experiences.
At the district level, decisions must be made about how to respond to the mandatory closures, Balfanz says. If the answer involves a move to remote learning, students need access to laptops and the internet. Otherwise, long-standing disparities widen.
“Districts have very different abilities and very different challenges, and it’s all complicated by socio-economic differences,” Balfanz says. It is perhaps unsurprising that districts with more resources and capacity to help students perform better than districts with less capacity. This can amplify racial, social and economic disparities.
At the micro level, Balfanz says the big open question is how to keep students connected to their schools despite social distancing and remote learning. In times of stress, children become less engaged in their remote learning if they don’t stay connected to their schools and peer groups. He recommends using a concept he calls ‘connectivity’, in which the school is more than a place of education, but rather a focal point for an entire community to tackle this challenge.
Beyond simple instruction, which is hard enough, Balfanz says the goal is to keep kids engaged, to let them know there are still adults out there who know them by name, who care about them. them and who want to stay in touch. But that’s a challenge in a system where barriers have been erected intentionally and specifically to prevent communication between teachers and counselors and their students outside of school property. In the case of social distancing, these barriers must be removed or transcended.
A similar relationship exists between student peer groups in the context of the school community, Balfanz says. Schools should not lose sight of the value of social efforts, such as clubs and extracurricular activities, to strengthen a student’s sense of belonging to their school. He encourages schools to do all they can to maintain some sense of the status quo, including using remote learning tools and social media to keep the social fabric of the school intact.
“A drama club can stream old-fashioned radio plays via Zoom, or the math club can meet online to solve problems together,” Balfanz says.
Balfanz says the nation has a unique opportunity to build capacity in schools at all levels after the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control. Increased resources for the education sector would do more than just improve schools in underperforming areas; it would provide a much-needed morale boost and an economic boost in the nation’s arm. The United States could consider commissioning a national reserve of laptops for future crises, the same way ventilators and health care equipment are stockpiled now, Balfanz says.
“With such an increase, school districts would not be locked in, but would get the extra help they need to make lasting and meaningful improvements,” Balfanz said. A national effort to recalibrate the education system would accelerate economic recovery and potentially affect every neighborhood in the country.
“These are big structural changes that are more about thinking for next time,” Balfanz says. “It’s not too far-fetched and now is the time to do it.”