Commentary, Education

The pandemic will harm vulnerable students, which is why we must continue fighting for vulnerable students

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The coronavirus pandemic has led to the closure of North Carolina’s schools through at least May 15, and students will face a growing set of challenges:

  • Loss of instructional days
  • Diminished instructional quality
  • Uptick in adverse childhood experiences
  • Likely cuts to school budgets

Education research provides us with a good idea of what these changes will mean for students, and none of it is good. School closures, the transition to online learning, a surge of family trauma, and continued hits to school resources will all harm students’ educational growth, while also widening disparities between the privileged and the vulnerable.

The invaluable Matt Barnum of Chalkbeat provides an excellent summary of how the coronavirus pandemic will derail student learning. Barnum’s comprehensive survey of the academic literature reaches the following conclusions:

  • Lengthy school closures will likely hurt students, and perhaps follow them into adulthood. Studies of summer reading loss vary on findings related to test score gaps, but consistently show that fewer school days lead to less learning. School closures from teacher strikes in Argentina allowed researchers to identify negative impacts on graduation rates, college attainment, employment and earnings.
  • Online instruction might help, but don’t count on it to replace regular school. The most careful, comprehensive study of virtual charter schools from Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that virtual charter students achieved the equivalent of 180 fewer days of learning in math and 72 fewer days of learning in reading than students in traditional public schools. Of course, these studies examine schools specifically designed for online delivery. Outcomes are likely to be worse under hastily designed district efforts. Additionally, the switch to online instruction will exacerbate inequalities as students from families with low incomes might lack the broadband access and physical space necessary for online learning.
  • An economic downturn would hit families’ and schools’ budgets hard, affecting students, too. Studies have found that school budget cuts lower test scores and college enrollment, particularly for students from families with low incomes. Additionally, Barnum cites studies showing that parental job loss is associated with worse in-school behavior, lower test scores, and higher likelihood of being held back a grade.

Overall, Barnum paints a bleak picture of the pandemic’s impact on children’s education. This crisis will undoubtedly hurt the long-term outlook for North Carolina’s children, particularly those from vulnerable populations. The question is, what do we do about it?

Ultimately, the research points us toward simply redoubling the efforts to create schools that are well-resourced, integrated communities that meet all kids’ basic needs. It means rapid adoption of the investments and new programs outlined in the Leandro consultant’s report necessary to deliver a constitutional education for all of North Carolina’s children. It means aggressively pursuing the shared vision for North Carolina’s public schools that education stakeholders across North Carolina have been demanding and that will allow all children to flourish. And it means vastly strengthening the social safety net to minimize job loss, hunger, financial hardship, and physical and mental health needs.

More specifically, North Carolina lawmakers should consider several strategies:

  • Dramatically increasing state investment in public schools. The Leandro consultant’s report recommended boosting real state spending in public schools by $3.7 billion. With the added challenges and urgency created by school closures, lawmakers should focus on reaching this milestone more quickly than the eight-year period envisioned by the Leandro consultant’s report.
  • Directing resources to the greatest need. The same students who have been systemically denied equal opportunities prior to the coronavirus outbreak are the same students who are bearing the greatest harm from school closures. New resources must center the needs of the most vulnerable:
    • Students with disabilities
    • Students from families with low incomes
    • Rural communities
    • English-learning students
    • Students affected by racial discrimination
  • Expanding learning time. Currently, North Carolina’s schools are required to provide a minimum of 185 days or 1,025 hours of instruction. Added instructional time — in the form of after-school programs and/or extended school calendars — can improve academic achievement and allow for a more enriching experience for students.
  • Combating the symptoms of poverty. When schools return, the need for school nurses, psychologists, counselors and social workers will be immense. In addition to staffing-up these positions, lawmakers should create community schools that partner with families and community organizations to provide well-rounded educational opportunities and supports for students’ school success.
  • Rejecting efforts to permanently increase online learning. Already some are looking to profit off schools’ hardships, by getting them to increase online learning. Such models have failed at delivering results for students. Authentic relationships are vital to student development and will be especially crucial to helping children overcome the trauma of this pandemic.
  • Embracing a more robust safety net. Lawmakers must support the healthcare, housing, immigration, labor and justice policies that support thriving communities. NC United for Survival & Beyond has developed a platform that should serve as the basis for supporting children and their families.

This crisis will undoubtedly increase the barriers to success for North Carolina’s children, particularly for our most vulnerable students. These greater challenges, however, fail to change what we need to be doing for our students: creating well-resourced, integrated school communities that provide all children with an equal opportunity to flourish.

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