K-12 Education

What the Pandemic Has Revealed About the Role of Schools

September 8, 2020  • David K. Gibson

It’s back-to-school time and, in 2020, this season is a time of anxiety in the face of a global pandemic.

None of us—parents, educators, administrators, doctors, policymakers—know if sending our children back to school this fall is a good idea; no scale can help us weigh the importance of education against the uncertainty of epidemiology. What level of infection risk is acceptable when considering what could be lost developmentally?

But perhaps those of us who are directly or indirectly addressing the societal, economic, and pedagogical aspects of the US education system can give weight to the importance of schools in America. If we can make a real assessment of the place that they hold in our society, we can have a more constructive conversation about what schools need to be doing now, whether face-to-face or virtually. And perhaps we can make smarter decisions about the role of schools when the pandemic is under control.

Educators and school staff are society’s biggest caregivers outside the home

Schools aren’t meant to be babysitting centers, but the school week doesn’t echo the workweek by mere coincidence. Schools give parents a safe and low-cost option for childcare and thus are a pillar of our economy.

In a pre-pandemic commentary arguing for free child care, Maureen Conway of the Economic Opportunities Program and Mark Popovich of the Good Companies/Good Jobs Initiative note that wage stagnation means that the average household needs two wage earners to make ends meet. Schools and other (often expensive) childcare options are necessary for most families.

But “back to school” means more than “back to work”—22% of the undergraduate students in the US are parents who need time to study, and who are likely also holding down jobs. Guardians of school-age children may also be caring for elderly parents and need time for self-care. “Parents need time for themselves, whether that’s for a manicure or a yoga class, or a nice, kid-free dinner,” said Lesley Del Rio, an Ascend Parent Advisor for the Aspen Postsecondary Success for Parents Initiative. “But they also must make time, space, and budget for mental health services like therapy, counseling, and medications. This can be very challenging without the childcare that schools provide.”

Schools provide a place for kids to learn

A school building is where learning usually takes place. But it’s the finer details, from kid-focused teachers to kid-sized desks, that make it work.

The digital divide that’s been a worry for decades is now an undeniable crisis in the pandemic. Roughly one-in-five American adults lack access to home broadband service or laptops, putting families who live in poverty and communities of color at the greatest disadvantage. The Aspen Digital program highlighted this growing “homework gap” in a recent event. The Institute’s Education & Society Program released a brief entitled Recovery And Renewal: Principles For Advancing Public Education Post-Crisis, which notes that “students from low-income families, students in rural communities, and students of color are much less likely to have internet access and a device on which to learn, or a quiet and safe space for schoolwork.” The simple idea of a space designed for learning becomes supremely important when it’s taken away.

Schools provide emotional support and routine

A big part of a school’s support capacity comes through human connection. “In the face of what is sure to be a lot of uncertainty, staying connected and showing care is what’s most important to students,” said Eugene Pinkard, Jr. director of practice and leadership for the Education & Society Program. “Relationships with engaged educators improve student outcomes even in so-called typical times. During times like this, with a pandemic, social unrest, and other stressors, those relationships will pave a path for recovery and renewal.”

There is no scale that can help us weigh the importance of education against the uncertainty of epidemiology.

Children crave the stability of clearly defined rules and class schedules, even when they seem to rebel against it. Teachers are trained to spot emotional difficulties and are also often the first to spot signs of abuse and neglect. School counselors and psychologists are also a necessary part of protecting the mental health of children. In a time of chronic unemployment on top of an already inequitable economy, teachers and administrators must be prepared to address the trauma of economic precarity.

Schools offer shelter from insecurity

Offering emotional support is only half of treating poverty-related trauma. Schools also fight poverty directly. The Recovery and Renewal report notes that “More than half of all the students in public education rely on schools for free or subsidized meals, and with record numbers of unemployment claims, food insecurity will become even more acute through the economic downturn unless policymakers act to address it.”

The Education & Society Program has with a particular eye on “scour[ing] federal funding streams for proactive ways to increase enrollment and maximize reimbursements.” This includes proactive enrollment in the Children’s Health Insurance Program, SNAP/food stamp benefits, and Medicaid—and certifying schools as remote locations of healthcare providers, which will allow direct billing and reimbursement. The document also recommends moving funding away from school law enforcement and toward support for counselors, social workers, and mental health professionals.

Schools are community centers

A school is a village unto itself, and parents and children gather for all sorts of non-academic reasons—for sports and clubs and extended care and ice cream socials. When a school needs something, there are often people lined up to help. This history of volunteerism (though it is fueled by budget shortfalls and understaffing) may help us reimagine education in the COVID-19 and post-pandemic eras. The Education and Society Program’s Governors and Mayors report suggests that schools can “arrange partnerships between school systems and institutions of higher education,” and create “specific programs that prepare psychologists, social workers, and counselors to provide support to students and educators through online mentoring, periodic check-ins, and data collection, etc.”

This has always been a goal of forward-thinking educators. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released a report in January of last year that recommends that the nation’s schools should “Align resources and leverage partners in the community to address the whole child; Build partnerships between schools, families, and community organizations to support healthy learning and development in and out of school; Blend and braid resources to achieve this goal.”

We are in a moment of reckoning. But the Recovery and Renewal report warns that “Public education is extraordinary in its resistance to change, so we should not be naive about receptivity to innovation or the system’s inclination to snap back to prior practice even when change is urgently needed and broadly desired.”

The importance of schools in society cannot be overstated, and yet schools remain chronically undervalued and underfunded. In the midst of a debate about whether or not schools should be open, perhaps we are finally recognizing all that we are asking schools to do.

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