Equity in Education in the Post-COVID Era

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By: Lavanya Subramanian

From: Northwestern University

By now – December 2023 – most people aren’t surprised by the detrimental effects COVID has had on almost every aspect of our lives, from healthcare to the development of basic soft skills. The sad truth is that we’re almost numb to the consequences of the pandemic. But what’s more surprising is how long it’s taking our society, specifically our education systems, to return back to “normal.”

A 2022 study conducted by Harvard and Stanford researchers found that across about 8000 school districts in 21 US states, which represented around 80% of children in K-8 public schools in the US, students were significantly falling behind in all disciplines. Specifically, they tracked students’ math, history, and reading standardized test scores for three years after the pandemic hit, and found that by the spring of 2022, students were lagging by 6 months on math and 4 months on reading compared to pre-pandemic students.

These delays reverberated throughout the US education system, impacting even high school and college students. The fall of 2022 saw a 13% overall drop in first-year enrollment in colleges. Two-year colleges were hit the hardest and had an 18.9% drop, which is especially concerning given that these institutions serve a high percentage of first-generation and low-income students. These decreases in enrollment prove that the pandemic was the last straw for many students who shared those identities, discouraging them from applying after they were already unsure about their financial and household’s stability.

The biggest concern, as lead researcher Tom Kane pointed out, was that even after collecting this data, experts still have no idea how to help. In the spring of 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which, along with other pandemic relief funding, allocated $190 billion to help students catch up academically. While it was successful in reopening a majority of the country’s K-8 schools, the money only went so far. With little to no federal guidance or coordination on the local level, school districts were at a loss for how to best use the money to actually address the students’ needs.

Unfortunately, these educational setbacks extended beyond US borders and onto a global scale. In June of 2023, Forbes posted a report with findings that it could take a decade for the United Kingdom to return to its pre-pandemic education levels. Essentially, the pandemic reversed over 10 years worth of progress in closing the educational disparity between different socioeconomic groups. From 2011 to 2018, the disadvantage gap index dropped from 3.34 to 2.90. But by 2022, when the Department of Education studied the full aftermath of COVID on UK schools, they found that the index was back up to 3.23, almost a complete reversal back to 2011.

Governments and school districts around the world have noticed this growing issue, and they have tried multiple different solutions over the past few years, including federal aid, high-dosage tutoring, and summer school. However these solutions, while successful in theory, are too broad and lack the proper guidance to make them effective on a smaller, local scale. It’s interesting, because similar federal education policies in the early 2000s, like “No Child Left Behind,” were much more successful than COVID education reforms. This begs the question: What’s different this time around, and how can we fix it?

The main difference between now and twenty years ago is the overall student disengagement that COVID incited. After over a year of online school – or worse, no school at all – students lack the motivation to attend school even after it has reopened. In an effort to combat this, schools across the US are lowering grading standards in an attempt to make classes easier, but this only further perpetuates students’ disengagement. Michael J. Petrilli, president of the education nonprofit Thomas B. Fordham Institute, agreed with this sentiment in his New York Times op-ed and called for schools to start raising the standards again for higher quality teaching and learning.

On the other side of the world in the UK, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee suggested actions for the UK government to take that were in the same vein. One of them stood out to me because I hadn’t heard it mentioned in any US government proposals, which was to take targeted action to reduce student absence rates, particularly among disadvantaged students. As Petrilli mentioned, high rates of student absences are a critical issue in the reality of post-COVID education, so figuring out a way to lower these rates would be extremely beneficial in starting to close the gap between pre and post-COVID education levels. Researchers for the London School of Economics discussed how one way to lower absenteeism could be to create stronger school-parent relationships in order to motivate parents to send their kids to school more often. While this is a good start, I think resolving a majority of the absenteeism school systems are experiencing relies on the students themselves. Some possible solutions to reignite their love for learning could include creating cohorts of students in the same classes so that they can encourage each other to attend, or big-little buddy systems for older students to accompany younger students to and from school when their parents are working long hours.

An article from the New York Times shares the same perspective: it discusses how teachers and school administration have had to devise more creative solutions to incentivizing student attendance. For example, a middle school in Hartford, Conn. held a pep rally with fun competitions, and a school district employee ate a chocolate-covered cricket. Another school in Dayton, Ohio encouraged attendance by offering students’ families gift cards, which could help them buy groceries or gas to drive to school. These proposals aren’t solely education-related, but it might be the new, out-of-the-box thinking that we should start considering. Instead of trying to return to the “pre-pandemic normal,” experts argue we should be aiming for a future where we not only meet, but also surpass, how we were in the past. There are two key ways to do this: with flexibility, and with nuance. It’s important to acknowledge that all school districts are different, and there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution that can instantly improve schools’ success rates. Addressing students’ emotional and financial needs, along with their education, is a great way to address the “nuance” of the situation. That’s why I think solutions like peer cohorts are especially necessary and effective, because they acknowledge the humanity of the students and take a more well-rounded approach to the problem.

Incorporating flexibility into education programs and systems moving forward is also crucial in creating long-term solutions. One way to do this is through massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The popularity of MOOCs have grown tremendously since the pandemic, from 36% enrollment in the fall of 2019 to around 60% in 2021. They also serve a much more racially and socioeconomically diverse population, with over half of its students being nonwhite. While they might seem similar to regular online school on the surface, MOOCs have proven to be much more successful and popular, especially among the younger generations: Coursera, a popular MOOC platform, gained 50 million users between 2016 to 2020, and that number only increased in 2022, to a total of 92 million students. This continued growth even after quarantine mandates were lifted proves the lasting popularity of and positive potential that MOOC platforms have.

Ultimately, post-COVID education rates are an incredibly complex problem, one that will require a combined effort from governments, school districts, families, and students to resolve. Several communities have already started taking a first step in the right direction, and by continuing to think with empathy and think outside the box, it’s possible to create a new and improved education system.

Works Cited

“The American Rescue Plan.” Whitehouse.Gov, www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/American-Rescue-Plan-Fact-Sheet.pdf. Accessed 5 Dec. 2023.

Doan-Nguyen, Ryan. “Post-Covid Learning Losses.” Harvard Magazine, 18 Oct. 2023, www.harvardmagazine.com/2023/07/kane-covid-learning-losses#:~:text=Math%2C%20reading%2C%20and%20history%20scores,of%20a%20year%20in%20reading.

Fortin, Jacey. “More Pandemic Fallout: The Chronically Absent Student.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Apr. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/04/20/us/school-absence-attendance-rate-covid.html.

Hamilton, Ilana. “By the Numbers: The Rise of Online Learning in the U.S.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 27 Sept. 2023, www.forbes.com/advisor/education/online-learning-stats/.

Kovacs, Kasia. “The Pandemic’s Impact on College Enrollment.” BestColleges.Com, 6 May 2022, www.bestcolleges.com/blog/covid19-impact-on-college-enrollment/.

Morrison, Nick. “Closing the Covid Learning Gap Could Take a Decade, Says U.K. Report.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 7 June 2023, www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorrison/2023/06/06/closing-the-covid-learning-gap-could-take-a-decade-says-uk-report/?sh=f1a068b57bc5.

Petrilli, Michael J. “We Can Fight Learning Loss Only With Accountability and Action.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2023, www.nytimes.com/2023/09/05/opinion/covid-learning-loss.html?searchResultPosition=4.

School and Education Clipart. Creazilla, https://creazilla.com/nodes/7766421-school-and-education-clipart.

More posts by Lavanya Subramanian.
Equity in Education in the Post-COVID Era
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