Transforming Education in the COVID Era

Written By: Ratan Kaliani

Designed by Annie Liu

These are unprecedented times. Too often in our lives, we hear these words and brush off the issues we’re facing. After all, when you’re facing a monumental crisis with no end in sight, it’s easy to resign yourself to the fact that there’s nothing you can do. If all of the progress and human innovation we’ve accomplished over the millennia can’t prevent this crisis from happening, what kind of an impact can we truly have? Yet, when we dive deeper, those four words hold so much power. Rarely in our lives are we faced with a period that we know we will remember for decades, yet that’s precisely the opportunity that this pandemic presents. Today, we have the ability to make decisions that will impact our society for generations. Our very ideals, institutions and future are at stake. Entire decades of progress uprooted and now open to new change. The way we transform society will be pivotal in shaping the generations to come, yet the institution that will shape our future, education, is in need of true transformation to come out the other side of this crisis.

Today, we have the ability to make decisions that will impact our society for generations. Our very ideals, institutions and future are at stake. Entire decades of progress uprooted and now open to new change. The way we transform society will be pivotal in shaping the generations to come, yet the institution that will shape our future, education, is in need of true transformation to come out the other side of this crisis.

The very structure of primary education (i.e. elementary school) that we’ve seen develop over the past two centuries in the United States is what makes it so susceptible to being irrevocably transformed by COVID. With primary schools providing “fundamental skills in reading, writing, mathematics, history, music, science, art and physical education”, the physical, emotional, and mental development of students is increasing at the highest rate at the primary education level. Due to this, we’ll see in the future that the transition to online learning will have long lasting impacts upon each student’s educational journey. In breaking down the impacts of COVID on primary education, it’s important to separate the three key categories where the ripple effect of the pandemic is most significantly seen: social, economic and educational. 

To understand the wide-ranging impacts of COVID on primary schools, we must take a deep dive into how specific counties are handling the coronavirus outbreak. Fairfax County Public Schools, where my hometown of Herndon, Virginia is located, recently decided to transition from a mixed in-person, online system for fall semester to an entirely virtual environment for school due to health concerns. Typically, there are many points in the day to socialize with classmates and teachers, from riding the school bus, discourse and interaction within classes, and most of all, lunch and recess. These activities are difficult to translate and emulate in a virtual environment, and according to the CDC, the lack of these activities will likely stunt the “development of language, communication, social, emotional, and interpersonal skills” in students. In fact, several studies focusing on the long-term effects of pandemics found a “strong association between length of quarantine and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, avoidance behavior, and anger,” with post-traumatic stress scores nearly 4 times higher than those who were not quarantined. The lack of access to facilities within schools, including counselors and therapists, within a virtual environment will result in significant mental health impacts within young children, possibly leaving unfixable obstacles preventing educational progress in many students’ lives.

However, this transition won’t look the same for all students. In a county with over 141 elementary schools and 187,000 students, the socioeconomic diversity of students cannot be understated. With varying degrees of access to high-speed internet, portable and mobile technology, as well as support for individual learning, such as online tutoring at home, the achievement gap between students is bound to increase during the COVID pandemic. A study recently conducted by McKinsey & Company found that in the case of low-income students who were unable to return to school until the spring, nearly 60% of students would be unable to receive even average quality remote instruction. Directly due to this, low-income students would lose nearly a year of learning when compared to typical in-classroom learning, resulting in a 15-20% increase in the achievement gap. 

Low income and minority students are more likely to receive lower quality remote instruction

Without a clear sense of direction at state and federal levels, it’s clear that the impacts of transitioning to virtual learning will be extremely severe. For both students that are unable to have direct 1-1 interaction with their teachers and those whose families have been impacted financially due to the economic effects of the pandemic, ensuring that no child is left behind will be essential to flattening the impact of COVID. However, COVID’s impacts extend far beyond the classroom.

Across the United States, nearly 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program and 15 million participate in the School Breakfast Program. For low-income families and students, these meals provide a necessary form of affordable, healthy food and deliver a sense of security that is sure to be lost as students are forced to stay at home and are unable to access those resources, especially in rural areas. With an increased strain on the resources to deliver food to low-income families during COVID, it will be more important now more than ever to ensure that students have the ability to access affordable food and have security at home. Parents forced to juggle work responsibilities, lack of childcare options and educating their children all while adapting to uncertain school schedules will prove to be a key driver between inequality created directly from the pandemic.

Though the situation seems bleak, school districts are breaking ground on many key initiatives to ensure that all students will be able to continue their learning with equal access to resources during virtual learning. Furthermore, within the United States, we can look towards countries both in Asia and Europe that have managed to bring students back into school with minimal health impacts via stringent and effective back-to-school policies. By implementing concrete, mindful plans about how to best manage the transition to online learning, as well as providing a stable and supportive environment for all students, elementary school administrators across the United States can ensure that the learning experience for students will retain its value. 

The decision between virtual learning and in-person learning needs to be navigated carefully on region-by-region, if not locality basis. Each and every community is in a different stage of pandemic, and a combination of federal regulations paired with local standards is the best way to go forward. According to Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Children, Adolescents and their Families, “every child is different – one might thrive in virtual learning and another might not do well. Overall the decision to return to school should be individualized.”

“every child is different – one might thrive in virtual learning and another might not do well. Overall the decision to return to school should be individualized.”

Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro

To understand how the educational administrators in the United States can bring back in-person learning, we must dive directly into similar nations which can offer a model that the United States can replicate. Denmark and Finland provide prime examples for how to do so. After initially transitioning to remote learning, decision-makers coordinated with the central government in Denmark to provide blanket regulations paired with local rules to bring students back into school. The decision to come back was staggered by age, as significant evidence has indicated that children play a small role in spreading the virus, with primary school students (ages 5-9) among the first age groups to come back. New measures include staggering arrivals, banning food sharing and eliminating pre-class student meetings. Within the classroom, social distancing and hygiene became the new paradigm, with students seated a minimum of 6 meters apart, required to wash their hands every two hours and educational equipment being cleaned twice per day. Regardless, some sacrifices in the greater community needed to be made: the opening of public parks just for students, families with one parent at home keeping their children at home, and those who are immunocompromised to stay home as well. By implementing similar standards health-wise in the United States, the transition to in-person learning in certain localities can be ensured with safety and efficacy in mind. However, the importance of truly reevaluating the way we conduct virtual learning cannot be understated.

In the past, remote learning has been characterized by content overload with a lack of focus on specific students. With the need for online learning in areas deeply afflicted by COVID, the educational archetype is in need of transformation to a model that is more reflective of each individual student’s needs: Engagement, Personalization and Fun (E.P.F.). Teachers can make the most of online learning by maintaining the personality and engagement that comes from 1-1 and classroom interaction with students. This includes making material personalized through gamification – from Kahoot to Jeopardy to in-classroom debates – to leveraging small breakout rooms via platforms like Zoom, teachers drive student engagement. Engaged students are students who will learn the material better, remember it more effectively and build interest in the material. Furthermore, teachers and administrators must also realize that the gap between students is exacerbated when online learning is conducted, so leveraging platforms like Dreambox Learning or Zearn will enable teachers to adapt to the learning of each individual student. By putting into place Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), teachers can improve existing teaching systems and help usher in a new era – where education and technology are intertwined to make student learning more effective. In a time when the events in our daily lives are uncertain, the educational system can be the stalwart of stability.

 The actions, policies and decisions that we put into place over the next year will be scruitized for decades. In a time so consequential to the future of our nation and our values, it is vital that we place our focus on those who will usher in the new era – the youth of this country currently in the educational system. By interweaving effective policies for both in-person and remote learning that drive student engagement while ensuring safety, we can shape our future.

Unprecedented times are frightening. But, they’re not impossible to weather. Instead, they provide a blank canvas upon which we can paint our future. Today, that begins with navigating the transformation of our educational system in the era of coronavirus to ensure that future generations have the resources to make their impact on the world. As for what’s revolutionized tomorrow, that’s up to you.

Edited by: Blair Hoeting

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