In a time of uncertainty and ever-changing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in schools, many education scholars and schools are turning to research to help guide the way and reduce inequities in education.
The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), based in the School of Education, sponsors the Schools of Opportunity school recognition program for high schools using research-based methods to close opportunity gaps. As schools nationwide moved to remote or hybrid learning in response to the pandemic, NEPC found that Schools of Opportunity innovated rapidly to holistically serve students and families.
Schools went beyond academics to address vulnerabilities created or exacerbated by the pandemic, such as food and housing uncertainties and unemployment. Many mobilized to offer laptops, district-provided home Wi-Fi, free grab-and-go meals, legal and unemployment guidance, emergency child care centers, and more.
Because families often rely on schools for more than academics, Professor of Education and NEPC Director Kevin Welner cautions that, even given the dire state of the economy and public revenues, this is not a time for an austere approach to school financing. Rather, now is a time to invest in public schools, particularly those working with historically underserved populations.
“There are accumulated harms being done disproportionately to lower wealth and minoritized communities—everything from the actual disease hitting harder to higher levels of unemployment,” Welner said.
“If our schools in these communities are trying to find money just to create a safe learning environment, how are they also going to find the additional resources to address the accumulated needs of their students and families?”
The pandemic has highlighted the learning loss resulting from shifts to online education. A new study led by Allison Atteberry, assistant professor of education, discovered that after years of study, we still don’t fully understand the wide variance of “summer learning loss.”
Atteberry and co-authors found that 52% of students in grades 1–6 experienced learning loss across five consecutive summers. Given that many students have not physically attended school for much of spring and fall—what could be considered “an unusually long summer”—this is “deeply concerning” for achievement disparities, she said.
“COVID-19 can seem like something we all experience equally together, but research is starting to disabuse us of these naive notions,” Atteberry said. “Summer learning loss is just one more example of how this crisis will exacerbate outcome inequality.”
Atteberry says teachers are ahead of researchers and policymakers in addressing summer learning loss as they engage in the daily, difficult work of teaching. She and many education scholars believe this a moment to support teachers and reimagine new models of schooling.
William Penuel, professor of education, notes this is not the first time that disruptions in education have led to new ideas with staying power. For example, after World War II, Italian parents founded a new caring and collaborative form of child care, the Reggio Emilia model, that still exists today, he said.
“We need such models now, something that helps us break away from the idea that the way schools look today is what they have to look like in the future,” he said.
In these times marked by a pandemic and racial injustice, Penuel believes we are collectively learning about new models of education and research-based approaches that honor the experiences of educators and students.
“This experience has helped many parents realize that the work of teaching is complex, and students have missed what makes school a good place for many of them,” he said.
“But for many students, the worst thing would be to go ‘back to normal.’ Normal wasn’t working for them. . . . We need to find models of anti-racist pedagogies so that we can demonstrate how they can be enacted with integrity in schools. All of these things are really about building caring and compassionate school communities, not just returning to school as we knew it, and we have a lot to learn about how to create such communities.”