So much has been written about education in the time of COVID, and it has been chiefly an indictment of the system. Our observations come with data and much self-flagellation. Still, as we close out 2021, we might consider that there has been some good along with the bad, and it will certainly help shape the future of education.
First, the bad. There has been an erosion of faith in our public school systems, evidenced by the significant drop in enrollment. Massachusetts, for example, reported a 4 percent drop in their 2021 student base. NPR, in its investigation of 600 districts across the country, reported a similar loss. If this trend continues, it will have funding implications.
The thinking of families who opted out of public schools is complex but at its core reflects uncertainty about the curriculum and doubt about the educational product being delivered. Considerations about remote learning and hybrid models factored negatively into many parents’ thinking, and private and homeschooling alternatives flourished. Now that more schools have returned on-premise, there is some enrollment bounce back, but no one is predicting a return to what was.
COVID has also been charged with creating a widening education disparity that impacts our most vulnerable communities. New Hampshire Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut has remarked that “This is not a new problem. We shouldn’t let the education system off the hook. COVID has simply exacerbated an existing problem and pointed out the need for new instructional models geared for minority and economically disadvantaged.”
As students returned on-premise this fall, it was clear how difficult the adjustment was for many. Everything from modest brawls to escalated violence has been the result. The National Association of School Resource Officers reports that from Aug. 1 to Oct. 1 this year, there were 97 reported gun-related incidents in schools. During the same span in 2019, there were 29. It has been difficult for educators to retain control, though the challenge of re-acclimation is expected to dissipate. Students will adjust to the higher level of discipline required at school, but it will take time.
Perhaps most daunting is the anxiety and depression that have affected many children. In the first six months of COVID, emergency department visits for mental health were up 31 percent for children ages 12 to 17. Educators have been tasked with keeping a watchful eye on their students’ well-being while also meeting educational objectives.
Yet despite the many negative consequences of COVID on K-12 education, COVID has had some long-term positive effects that will shape the system’s future. For one thing, parental involvement is much greater. “It’s very simple,” says Edelblut. ”Where you have engaged parents, you get better educational outcomes.” The National Coalition for Parental Involvement has shown that no matter a family’s income or background, students with involved parents are more likely to have higher grades and test scores, attend school regularly, have better social skills, and adapt well to school. Parental engagement is most educators’ dream, even if there is a bit of a shock in the process.
Said another way, Shira Deener, head of Boston’s Jewish Community Day School offers, “Our parents have always been involved partners in the enterprise of their children’s education, but the pandemic has brought parents inside in a way they had not been before. Getting proximate has increased our parents’ appreciation of what it takes and everyone benefits.”
Beyond parental engagement, another significant benefit rendered by COVID has been a renewed commitment to expanding the options for how and what education is delivered. As Edelblut explains, “We built a factory model that assumed homogeneous learning. Kids are not homogeneous, and what has become evident is that we need to personalize institutions. We need to meet the kids where they are.”
For example, while most students do better on-premise both educationally and socially, Edelblut reports that 15 percent of New Hampshire students do better through remote learning because they have more agency. Different needs will mean different systems and continued adaptation.
What education looks like going forward is anyone’s guess, but there are some smart bets we can place. There will be continued parental involvement. Schools will test out a range of options that aim to meet kids where they are. Mental health and social well-being will remain a focus. New technologies will emerge that will aid in everyone’s effort to provide the education we can be proud of.
It will be a brave new world, and COVID will have helped.