As young people, families and educators near the end of yet another hectic pandemic school year, new research studying the early impact of remote learning offers a sobering look at experiences and outcomes, including interrupted and incomplete learning.
The latest study from Harvard’s Center for Education Policy Research is based on testing data from 2.1 million students across the country. It shows that school closures widened both economic and racial inequality in learning — which was already at unacceptable rates prior to the pandemic. One particularly gripping data point demonstrates that of school districts that were remote for most of 2020-21, high-poverty schools experienced 50 percent more achievement loss than low-poverty schools.
As I reflect on the past two years of the pandemic, like many, I’m concerned by the impact the pandemic has had on our young people, our teachers and our education system at large. Yet I caution against using a deficit frame that fails to account for other types of learning and skills students acquired during the pandemic, simply because they don’t fit traditional measurement standards or narrow constructs of achievement. Moreover, I’m concerned that a false choice is being presented by those with decision-making authority — return to in-person schooling entirely or commit to remote learning completely.
These all-or-nothing calls lack nuance, and, as usual, it is our most vulnerable students who pay the steepest costs for shallow policies. By hurriedly returning to norms that have consistently failed to properly serve most students, we risk missing a critical moment to embed greater equity and reimagine our education system.
As we look ahead to creating a new normal, students and families — especially our most vulnerable and often marginalized or excluded — deserve a range of options that affirm their identities, provide wraparound supports, attend to their interests and respond to their needs in culturally relevant and equitable ways. For many students, in-person learning and services are essential; other students would benefit from more flexibility and options.
Young people and educators have been telling us what they need. What would education and learning look like if we centered their voices?
Earlier this year, educators and students in Chicago walked out to demand safety measures in their classrooms. Young people in Boston asked for remote learning and more pandemic safety precautions. For some Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander families, remote learning proved to be a welcome reprieve from racially hostile environments. Many described remote-learning spaces where they felt emotionally safe, welcome and heard. Black and Latino parents were most hesitant about the return to in-person schooling in fall 2021. Some students with unmet mental health needs reported lower anxiety during remote learning. For young people with disabilities, calls for returning to in-person schooling felt exclusionary.
Also, critically, during the pandemic, educators across the country have been forced to work under unsustainable conditions and make difficult choices. Many are leaving the profession at alarming rates.
As usual, it is our most vulnerable students who pay the steepest costs for shallow policies.
And for students and educators who are, or live with persons who are, immunocompromised, or have other health concerns, anxiety about contracting Covid remains an ever-present threat — even as much of society seems to have moved on.
Nevertheless, as a former K-12 educator, education philanthropy leader and someone who currently works with a cohort of doctoral students in higher education, I understand and appreciate the need for in-person learning.
Being in a physical space with young people means being able to appreciate and understand one another’s emotions, cues and needs more directly; it also provides opportunities to build inclusive and supportive communities in ways that can often be challenging to do virtually.
Still, a narrow understanding of how, when and where learning can happen will stymie efforts to create a system that works for all students, especially students of color.
Education as we have known it no longer exists. The pandemic is still here, and educators and our young people are still being impacted. We need a range of options that can address the needs of every learner, especially those who have been consistently overlooked.
We should pay attention to what young people and educators are telling us: In-person schooling absent of other considerations misses the mark. Many groups of students appreciated the flexible scheduling and pacing that allowed them to get enough sleep, manage other aspects of their lives and have more independence.
Let us use this moment to build a durable and flexible education system for the future, one grounded in principles of justice and liberation. Several organizations, including many in New England, are already reimagining how our education system can be nimbler and more responsive to students with varied needs.
Both the Highlander Institute and Learn Launch have been working for years to design equitable, high-quality, remote and blended learning options for students. And spaces such as the Blackyard Learning Community in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are rethinking what and how children learn.
Many of these organizations also seek to explore anti-racist approaches and center radical love, justice, healing and social and emotional learning in education.
There is no one-size-fits all approach to education, and both in-person and remote learning models can be improved to help all young people feel engaged, encouraged and supported. These choices should not be binary options.
As students, educators, families and policymakers continue to grapple with the seismic shifts precipitated by competing pandemic demands and other societal crises, we must think beyond what schooling has looked like historically. We must finally make the commitment to building a public education ecosystem that is more adaptive, responsive and just.
Gislaine N. Ngounou, Ed.L.D., is the interim president and CEO of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. She has been an educator in the classroom and within school districts, and a leader of professional development for educators, with a focus on culturally responsive pedagogy, social justice, racial equity and community partnerships.
This piece about re-imagining education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.