Pandemic compounds known challenges facing students

At a recent hearing of the House Education and Labor Committee, lawmakers learned about the profound challenges awaiting teachers and students when classes resume in the fall


It is still remarkably unclear what a return to school in the fall will look like for most of the nation’s students. “There are a lot more questions than there are answers,” said Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) at a recent hearing of the HELP Committee in Washington. Image: Jeffrey S. Solochek/Tampa Bay Times via TNS

Jeffrey S. Solochek/Tampa Bay Times via TNS

The House Education and Labor Committee held its first hearing since March to take testimony from four witnesses from key areas of input to the Congress: a think tank, a union, a state official and a superintendent. What they learned is that pandemic-related lockdowns have only exacerbated problems already well-known to school officials, and that the resulting severe budget constraints will only make matters much worse in the months to come.

National Education Association Vice President Rebecca Pringle cited a Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that nearly half a million public education jobs have already been lost to budget cuts whereas the great recession cost about 300,000 education jobs. “In other words, COVID-19 has done more damage in three months than a recession that lasted for a year and a half.”

In addition to grappling with these historic cuts, which make maintaining educational quality while also implementing public health protocols a nigh impossible task, educators will need to manage the following challenges when classes resume in the fall.

#1 Domestic situations compound performance

Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon indicated that nearly 5% of his district’s students are homeless; because of housing issues and and a notorious lead paint issue in the City of Cleveland, almost 25% qualify for special education services.

Unemployment and of course the tension of staying sheltered for weeks on end only exacerbated these issues.

Even so, attendance tracking has been inconsistent across schools and districts while enhanced summer school programs are being rapidly organized. Efforts are underway to identify students and parents who had not participated in virtual classes for monitoring, then outreach to get kids enrolled – but not universally.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Aka.) and others have introduced a bill with emergency relief to address growing homelessness.

#2 Digital divide aggravated

Parents and teachers already know well the Herculean task of switching to remote learning practically overnight. North Carolina Superintendent of Public instruction Mark Johnson told the committee that school staffs connected students “where they could and if they couldn’t, assignments were delivered by school bus, over the phone and even through the United States Postal Service.” Such is the improvisation educators have embraced to continue educating the nation’s students.

But the fact remains – so many of the nation’s families still don’t have a reliable internet connection. While households in wealthier districts typically have internet access, Pringle estimated that approximately 12 million students or about 20% nationwide had no internet access or connected devices at home.

The public libraries, community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other places these students would turn to for internet access were closed, and many remain inaccessible,” she said.

Pringle also told the committee that virtual platforms are no substitute for persistent eyes on pupils in the classroom.

Gordon testified that over two-thirds of the families in his high poverty district had no device other than a smart phone to connect to the internet. Somewhat ironically given red budgets, the Cleveland district froze its spending and directed “all available funds” towards distributing over 9,000 hotspots and 16,000 devices to households. Nonetheless, Gordon called mobile hotspot placement “Band-Aids,” especially for rural communities.

#3 Summer slide, with a vengeance

Educators have learned to expect it. With time away from school, students forget what they learn and the fall semester necessitates catching up before new information can be shared.

But as Committee Chairman Bobby Scott (D-Va.) noted, this summer essentially started months ago.

“Our country’s history of educational inequity tells us which students will lose the most during school closures,” he said, identifying achievement gaps among minority students, those with disabilities, English-language learners and those from poor households.

“Everyone doesn’t need a summer program and some desperately, desperately do,” Scott acknowledged. “What should we do?”

States are attempting to address summer learning loss by allocating funds generated from cuts, where possible, to improve connectivity and purchase devices for students. Gordon said parent-teacher conference calls were also being scheduled at families’ convenience as opposed to daily or weekly because “that overwhelmed mom can’t take a call every day.”

Traditionally a time for construction and procurement, strained budgets may preclude the opportunity to prepare schools for the coming school year.

#4 Anxiety replaces annual excitement for return

And then there are the psychological impacts that we’re just now beginning to understand. Having witnessed what has occurred over the last several months may have traumatized students suddenly separated at length from friends and family. Stressed by staying home with parents themselves stressed about finances, employment, grave illness or death in the family translates to an “always-present anxiety of this time of masks, gloves and fear,” Pringle said, calling for “trauma-informed practices throughout our schools.”

In other words, schools need a much-bolstered support network of educators and counselors in addition to food services and provisions for personal protective equipment.

Classrooms – many overcrowded in normal times – cafeterias and hallway traffic must also be rethought to account for voluntary CDC guidelines and social distancing.

School boards and districts have begun to release tentative plans for reopening, such as in Arizona’s third largest school district, Chandler, where hallway congregation will be discouraged. Alternating schedules – hours of the day and days of the week – are at the heart of Philadelphia’s plan.

Virginia’s largest district, Fairfax County, published plans based on three scenarios ranging from reduced classroom capacity to fully virtual. (It is important to note, however, that the jurisdiction’s IT director resigned after remote learning rollout went disastrously, according to frustrated parents.)

Indeed, common themes emerge from a look at suggestions put forward by others.

These plans, however, do little to assuage Pringle and her colleagues.

We are worried that we will not have the educators available to come into our schools and teach,” she said. "[And] we cannot fully reopen our economy unless and until public schools reopen.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) echoed the sentiment. “We have a ways to go before we’re gonna have everybody in classrooms safely all around this country,” he said.

Next: Many families uncomfortable with returning to school this fall, survey finds

Michael Kirby has worked since 2008 for a credentialed news bureau on Capitol Hill that provides digital video and information services to news organizations across the web. Kirby graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2007 with a BA in philosophy, minoring in history. He is interested in many legislative topics, and always has an eye on public safety-related news because he grew up around the firehouse.