The COVID pandemic has exacerbated and amplified a host of societal challenges and shortcomings, but arguably none more so than inequality within education. This situation—pervasive and pressing prior to the pandemic—has only deteriorated further and taken on even greater urgency. It demands nothing short of a top-to-bottom, local-to-national moonshot-like effort to address and eradicate it. Since inequality hinders human flourishing, it’s morally imperative that we do so.
We’ve all been hearing and reading about the “COVID slide” that many students are experiencing as a result of distance learning and a whole host of pandemic-related emotional issues. But the slide is steeper and more devastating for some students. As Christopher Morphew, dean of the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University, put it to PBS Newshour: “We’re seeing lots of evidence of the students who are most at risk… falling further and further behind.”
Ann Mastern, a developmental psychologist from the University of Minnesota, said much the same to Knowable Magazine: “We know that children who are disadvantaged lose ground in the summer. What we’re in the midst of now looks like it’s going to be the equivalent of an 18-month summer. On the whole, our society will suffer from a loss of academic capital: There might be a lower rate of high school graduation and college education in this generation.” This is, of course, unacceptable — and preventable if we choose to muster the political and economic will.
According to Axios, a recent report from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group notes that two million kids still don’t have the connections they need for distance learning. On top of this, the study found that a full 75% of those COVID-inspired programs to address this issue will expire within three years. We’re far beyond the point where short-term solutions can save us.
It’s About More than Academics
The COVID slide is not just about academics, as important as those obviously are. It’s about the entire scope of the pandemic’s impact—what some have labeled “a collective trauma.” It has turned many kids’ worlds upside down and inside out. With traditional, in-person school paused or truncated for so many, the emotional life of children—again, especially, though not exclusively, those in lower-income brackets—is taking a serious hit. It’s not just that they’re missing out on school friendships and certain key experiences such as field trips and graduations, it’s also the stress and heartbreak of COVID. Kids carry the burden of worrying about a parent or loved one becoming ill or possibly dying. And, yes, for too many kids this worry has become all too real.
Beyond the stresses associated with the disease itself, the pandemic has meant the loss of income and jobs for many parents and guardians, making life a lot tougher for too many. And as if this weren’t enough, there’s the stress and uncertainty caused by the palpable political tensions throughout almost every community. Let’s face it: even plenty of adults are struggling with all of this, and the impact on children can be deep—and disastrous.
One of the most startling situations is found in Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas and the nation’s fifth-largest school district. As reported in the January 24th edition of The New York Times, the district has received more than 3,000 calls from the start of COVID about students contemplating suicide or self-harm. By December, eighteen students had taken their lives. One was only nine. Nine.
It’s Time for a Speedy Blue-Ribbon Panel
The long-standing problem of inequity in education has, due to COVID-19, gone supernova on us. What we need is a blue-ribbon, non-partisan panel of educators, legislators, equality advocates, business leaders and others to tackle this issue with the same sort of urgency as Project Warp Speed. I envision a grander, bolder approach than that of the U.S. Commission on Excellence in Education that resulted in the iconic, “Nation at Risk” report back in 1983.
This blue-ribbon panel needs to be formed and empowered now so that they can get to work with making recommendations and sharing best practices ASAP. To help on this front, they need not—and should not—reinvent the wheel. There are solutions already in play across the country and in other nations, too. We can’t be too proud to borrow proven solutions from other countries.
What this panel recommends will need more than the blessing of our nation’s top leaders; its recommendations will require the financial backing of local, state and federal governments. Practically no cost is too large for what is at stake here: the dignity of all our children, regardless of race or income, and the right of every child to receive an education—and the related support when needed, such as school meals, counseling and the like. And here we’re not talking about an education that is “good enough,” but one that is truly outstanding. The poorest children of color deserve an education on par with what the richest white children receive. Anything less is not good enough. Anything less is wrong.