In the Wake of the Coronavirus, We Must Design and Build the Schools We Need—Not Simply Reopen Schools As They Were

A worker cleans the walls in a classroom at a school in Provo, Utah, on May 18, 2020.

Communities using parent power and progressive school districts alike are beginning to plan recovery strategies coming out of the COVID-19 crisis that focus on the needs of every student and keep equity at the center of their proposals. Using federal and state funds to reinstate a broken public school system that has operated against all concepts of equity is the wrong approach. Instead, the federal government should make it a priority to fund efforts to reimagine what’s possible for public education and public school students.

Whether it’s access to the care and concern of expert educators, school-based meals, supports for learning differences and learning English, safety from homelessness or from abuse that may be present at home, America’s public school students deserve to rise from the COVID-19 pandemic in a better position than when the crisis began. This will only happen if the nation commits itself to providing today’s young people a quality education and equitably provides the resources to accomplish that in the near and long term. America must run toward equity in this time of need—not away from it.

The impulse to consider how to cover more content or squeeze three months of missed learning into a new school year instead of pursuing age-appropriate mastery should be avoided at all costs. Using the community as a classroom can no longer be a novel idea. Better still, family and community engagement, especially when it comes to what schools will look like, must be a necessity versus simply a nice element to have.

This pandemic has revealed that opportunity has not only been beyond the reach of students from families with fewer resources but also that the quality of education for working- and middle-class families has been limited if not subpar. When race is factored in, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and some populations of Asian American and Pacific Islander students have clearly been deprived of the basic tools for success. Likewise, their educators too often are working in conditions that undermine the country’s stated commitment to invest in students’ futures. Before policymakers set out to determine the dollars needed to get students back to learning, they should take this opportunity to slow down and place equity at the center of their efforts before speeding up to address student and educator needs in the midst of this crisis.

At a small scale, the consequences of inequity are surfaced when students are locked out of crumbling schools during inclement weather, locked out of careers due to inadequate career and technical education, or locked out of college due to lack of preparation. However, COVID-19 has shined a harsh light and laid those inequities bare in the face of students who won’t be able to access college because their family’s income has been wiped out or because the digital divide is making access to guidance counselors difficult if not impossible. Students with disabilities and English language learners likewise are without necessary supports. Educators have been tasked with being a bridge between trauma and normalcy for students, even though they lack the adequate training to accomplish distance learning or the space to manage their own grief and families.

Moreover, there will be massive shortfalls in state budgets that will not be stabilized by provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act or by proposed funding levels in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. While the federal government has responded to this crisis for the very short term, that response and approach is woefully inadequate. The 2008 recession showed that state governments have been inclined to reduce investments in education following a crisis while simultaneously expecting improved outcomes for students.

Absent a vaccine or approved treatment, one can anticipate the upcoming summer learning loss and massive gaps in literacy development that will occur in the face of school closures with no foreseeable opening date. Therefore, district officials, labor leaders, educators, and community members should make plans to establish clear grade-level competencies as a target for students to end the 2020-2021 school year. Those efforts should be funded with federal dollars and prioritized before school districts make decisions about how to resume school. Any process should consider community assets for families interested in extending classrooms outside of the school building to avoid long-term instruction through screens.

Just as critical, for the long term, is determining what systems need to be in place for future extended school closures and in support of an equitable model of schooling. Funding should be established for the recovery stage of this pandemic to ramp up innovative strategies that are beginning to be seen around the country such as the use of public access channels to deliver instructional content and ensuring 1-to-1 access to technology for every student. Likewise, instead of elected leaders focusing on absolving institutions of higher education from being liable for endangering students, staff, and faculty by opening too soon, they should focus on the role that they can play to quickly redesign teacher and administrator training. This resource should be targeted at preservice educators, as well as for those already serving students, to function in a system that works for everyone. Finally, federal dollars need to be effectively and strategically deployed to eradicate the digital divide in both rural areas and urban cores.

Undoubtedly, there are immediate needs to be addressed by this massive disruption. However, these needs won’t be remedied by simply thrusting equipment into the hands of students and educators with an expectation that they continue to participate in a structure that left many underprepared and others unprepared to continue the process of learning. Instead, serious consideration must be given to both a school calendar that is structured to support families through a year-round system of learning and educator training that supports teachers’ and school leaders’ roles in preparing civically engaged and future-ready students.

While there is no silver lining to a global pandemic that’s taking people’s lives and creating untenable living and financial situations for millions, this nation was built by people who innovated and thrived despite desperate circumstances. Now is the time to use that ingenuity to create a system of education that makes it possible for all children to thrive in a society that will sustain us all into the distant future.

Khalilah M. Harris is the managing director of K-12 Education at the Center for American Progress.

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