I recently received a note from a colleague asking about what happens after the pandemic virus’s effects ebb, Americans return to work (if their workplace has not closed), schools re-open, and “social distancing” becomes an unwelcome memory. My colleague asked if at such a time would school reform sweep across the nation as it did for New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
In that city all public schools were closed, teachers were fired, and within a few years, state-driven reforms created a new district that contained mostly charter schools enrolling 93 percent of students, the highest number among the nation’s districts.
I told my colleague that such an outcome–spread of charters–for the U.S. after the coronavirus ebbs was highly unlikely.
My knowledge of school reform movements in the past century tilted me more toward what happened to schools after the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed millions across the globe and around 675,000 Americans (ten times more than died in World War I). While that pandemic occurred, U.S. schools and businesses were closed, crowd gatherings were banned, and other similar responses to the coronavirus pandemic occurred.
Schools eventually re-opened after the influenza pandemic (Olympia, Washington closed its schools October 11, 1918 and allowed students to return on November 14).
During these years, the educational Progressives had installed a series of governance, organizational, curricular, and instructional reforms in various urban, suburban, and rural districts across the country. These reforms (e.g., governing efficiently through bureaucratic hierarchies, new curricula focused on children and youth working on projects, schools as medical, social service, and community centers) had become incorporated into thousands of districts’ policies and practices. After the pandemic, these reforms largely continued (see here). No shift in direction or substantive changes occurred as a result of the pandemic.
So when public schools re-open their doors to children, unlike post-Katrina New Orleans, I do not expect substantive changes in school reforms for the near future that have been in place nearly forty years.
These reforms initiated since the mid-1980s to closely link tax-supported public schools to the workplace will persist. Those reforms such as raising graduation requirements, encouraging all high school students to attend college, continuing tests and accountability structures along with increased parental choice of schools, particularly with charters–I expect all of those to chug along pretty much as they have prior to the coronavirus’s appearance.
But I do expect some short-term effects on using new technologies and changes in the annual calendar of schools.
Online teaching and learning
Beginning in March 2020, both higher education and K-12 schools have closed across the country. These institutions responded to the threat of Covid-19 with an onslaught of remote learning (see here, here, and here). What became obvious within a few weeks was the digital inequality for those from affluent and middle-class families with access to Internet and multiple devices and working class and poor families that had fewer or no computers at home and spotty access to the web. Of course, digital inequality is just a symptom of the economic gaps that have grown between the rich, middle class, and poor.
The rush to provide schooling online so that students can continue learning uninterrupted now offers incentives to promote even more online learning once schools re-open. Remote teaching and learning–distance education as it once was called–over time tends toward lower costs in educating the young compared to staffing classrooms with teachers and professors. Moreover, even with the federal stimulus just passed by Congress containing billions for K-12 schools to expand e-learning and purchase compatible technologies, these incentives may not lead to clear growth in e-learning. The best that I can offer is a bland–Perhaps.
Why the uncertainty of a “perhaps?”
As I read newspaper, magazine, and television news and commentary from pundits and parents (including my immediate family, friends, and former students) what became obvious to me–in this instance I can only offer anecdotal evidence since I have no opinion polls or systematically collected data–was increased appreciation among single mothers, two working parents, and extended families for the custodial function of schools.
All American children ages 5 to16 have to go to school (ages vary by state). Compulsory enrollment legally requires schools to take care of students. These minors in the eyes of the law have to learn content and skills, interact with peers and adults, and receive community services including meals while within those brick-and-mortar buildings. These basic functions of tax-supported public schools are crucial to society and the economy; yet they have been taken for granted for a century. Only now after schools have closed and children and youth are at home does the full force of this requirement hit families square between the eyes.
Will parents across the country come to appreciate more than they do now the custodial, cognitive, and social functions tax-supported public schools perform daily? I want to say yes. But time will tell.
The pandemic has made clear how important current schools are as they are presently organized and operated. I do not foresee any popular support for initiatives to substantially alter current policies or the age-graded school and its grammar of schooling.
Will there be, however, accelerated support for online learning in K-12 schools and higher education? I do expect that many underfunded public schools–most states have cut back on funding schools in the past three decades (see here and here)–will increase remote learning as a cost-saving move. The economic tremors following the pandemic will reduce even more school funding as has happened after the Great Recession of 2008. Laying off 300,000 teachers, no salary increases, and larger class size (see here)
The Obama administration did pour additional funds into schools then (see here). The U.S. Congress passed and President Trump signed legislation that exceeded the 2009 infusion of money in the economy and schools. How much the Trump administration will allocate to schools beyond what I have read about e-learning, I do not yet know.
So I do expect an immediate uptick in online learning during and after the school day. Overall, however, such increases will remain peripheral to the core work of teachers meeting their students daily and teaching content and skills (both hard and soft) to children and youth.
In the immediate future, there will be changes in the annual school calendar and summers off for students. My next post will elaborate how I expect the issue of time in public schools to change.