COVID-19 Exposes Significant Gaps in our Education System

With schools closed across the country, COVID-19 has exposed stark challenges in the American educational system – from basic needs for online learning like access to the internet and technology tools, to life-sustaining needs like access to nutritious food or a safe living environment. Parents are stretched thin as they provide instructional support they may not be qualified to give, or have to find child care when they need to be working. The unfortunate reality is that America’s school systems are ill-prepared to meet the challenge COVID-19 presents.

While most educators would agree in-person learning is more effective, disruptions are commonplace due to natural disasters or inclement weather. Most school systems utilize some form of technology, and have the ability to implement online learning, but few have done so. In households equipped with technology, parents are now working from home while also overseeing their children’s online education. However, a surprising number of students lack basic access to technology as well as the ability to afford internet service outside of school.

Richmond Public Schools, Virginia’s second-poorest school district, is using a combination of reallocated funds and philanthropic support to buy an additional 10,000 computers for students who need them. South Carolina has converted thousands of school buses into mobile hotspots to connect rural students to the internet, and state leaders are helping families sign up for free service offered in response to the crisis.

Many students face food insecurity and rely on school meals as their primary form of nutrition. Resources exist to close the gap for students in the summer months, but COVID-19 disruptions have shown the difficulty of continuing to provide adequate nutrition to students in need. The USDA, which administers school nutrition programs, has moved quickly to ensure that states can receive waivers that allow them to continue getting food to children during school closures. Cincinnati Public Schools has created walk-up and drive-thru meal sites that serve two-days’ worth of meals three days a week to any child ages 1-18.

On March 20, the US Department of Education announced that states could apply for a waiver from federal accountability testing this school year, and most states are taking advantage of that allowance. This means critical information on student achievement that informs school systems will not get captured. Additionally, states and districts will be faced with declining state revenues in the coming months as recession hits our economy. State leaders will have difficult decisions to make regarding graduation requirements, student promotion/retention, and the strategic allocation of funds, among other topics.

With schools closed, child care is a critical need for first responders and other essential staff ensuring the nation’s response to the pandemic. As states scramble to approve emergency licenses for both new and existing providers, the crisis is shining a spotlight on the ongoing needs of the early childhood workforce, many of whom are being asked to take on potentially hazardous. New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham is blazing an important (if temporary) trail in response, adding infected child care workers to the state’s high risk insurance pool, and offering to pay premiums for both these workers and their families until they recover.

The closing of most college and university campuses across the country poses a serious problem for postsecondary students – especially those suffering from housing and food insecurity. Students without the resources, those who are independent from their parents, and international students are unsure of where they would stay if forced to vacate campus housing. Many schools that have closed dormitories have established a process allowing students to apply for an exemption to stay on campus, but the closure of many campus dining services and food pantries (where available) may cut off some students’ only food supply option. To address this need, Grand Rapids Community College converted the school’s campus food pantry for students into a new model that complies with social distancing requirements: groceries are prepackaged and delivered to students via curbside pickup at set dates and times.

This is a difficult time for America’s school systems, and student learning will suffer in the coming months. While evidence of school districts, companies, and individuals stepping in to fill some of the gaps exists, we will need to work diligently to help all of our students, especially our most vulnerable. COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to evaluate, shore up, and strengthen the American education system. Let’s not let this unprecedented disruption in our society go unanswered.


Dr. Javaid Siddiqi is President & CEO of The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit focused on education policy located in Cary, N.C.

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