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What COVID-19 Taught Us About the Education Sector


The arrival of COVID-19 has permanently transformed many industries, some of which are still experiencing shifts. COVID-19 has also reshaped the education sector, creating the most extensive disruption of the education system in the United States and worldwide. 

Through school closures and changes to the way students receive information, the pandemic has affected almost 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries, a number that represents 94 percent of the world’s students and up to 99 percent of students in developing countries.

COVID-19 widened the gap in learning opportunities for students in at-risk categories, shining a light on areas that need vast improvement at a global level. 

Below we take a closer look at what COVID-19 taught us about the education sector, including its impact on the nation’s education system, increased disparity among at-risk students, and trends in distance learning. In addition, dealing with a global pandemic has provided an opportunity to identify issues and opportunities for improvement as we explore some of the policy recommendations being discussed in the sector that could positively impact students now and in the future.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the U.S. Education System

The U.S. Department of Education reports that COVID-19 has negatively impacted students in the United States. Every student deserves a safe learning environment where they receive a high-quality education. Unfortunately, many students did not have access to the best learning environment and education long before COVID-19 came to the United States; however, the arrival of COVID-19 increased this gap. Specific observations about some of the negative ways that COVID-19 impacted American students include:

Slowed Academic Growth

Before the pandemic, at-risk students were already behind in core subjects. COVID-19 increased this gap in subjects like reading and math, causing some to fall behind further. Regardless of the extent to which students fell behind, the pandemic slowed academic growth at the very least.

Reduced Access to Virtual Learning

COVID-19 increased disparities related to access to technology and other barriers students of color in public schools face that prevent them from participating in virtual classrooms. For example, in some communities, internet access is poor and expensive. Additionally, not all students have tablets or computers at home to participate in online learning.

Increased Struggles for Students Learning English

The abrupt change to distance learning increased the difficulties students learning English face. Students who immigrated from other countries already faced challenges trying to learn English and master content in each of their classes simultaneously, and learning from home made it even harder.

Students with Disabilities Lost Support

Many K-12 students with disabilities experienced significant disruptions to their education during the pandemic. Additionally, COVID-19 negatively impacted the support service and resources used for students with disabilities, threatening academic progress and leading to regression.

LGBTQ+ Students Lost Access to Supportive Groups

Many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer K-12 students rely heavily on school organizations, peers, and teachers for support, especially if they aren’t getting it at home. Pandemic-related school closures cut off access for students, increasing their risk for stress, isolation, and anxiety.

Increased Mental Health Risks

During the pandemic, almost all students experienced some negative impact on their mental health. In addition, learning from home came with a loss of support and services provided by schools. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that suicide rates among students aged 12 to 17 increased by more than 30 percent during 2020.

Increased Risk of Sexual Harassment, Abuse, Violence

Students who reside in unstable homes face more abuse and violence from family members. Additionally, many spent more time online via laptop or phone and experienced online harassment from classmates and others.

Increased Harassment and Violence Against Specific Groups

Many students and their communities have faced violence and harassment because of their particular identities, especially regarding ethnicity and religion. During the pandemic, Asian American and Pacific Islander students faced more risk for discrimination, harassment, and violence, negatively impacting their learning and related opportunities.

Distance Learning Skyrocketed During the Pandemic

Mandated lockdowns were the initial government action once COVID-19 started spreading. Early on, the focus was to “flatten the curve.” However, lack of full cooperation among United States citizens and continued essential services ensured COVID-19 continued to spread. As a result, school districts throughout the United States turned to distance learning to keep students engaged in their studies and prevent them from falling too far behind because of lockdowns and closures.

Consequently, distance learning skyrocketed during the pandemic. In addition, a focus on providing quality education to K-12 students, few of whom were already enrolled in a distance learning program, forced districts and school boards to make hard decisions and examine their delivery. 

As a result, distance learning provided two main benefits during the pandemic:

Promotion of Inclusive Learning

As states continued to adopt distance learning to deliver education to students who remained at home during the lockdown, the disparity that students with disabilities faced became painfully apparent. Without the proper equipment, accessible curriculum, and support, students with disabilities struggled to participate in online schooling. The pandemic forced states and school districts to promote inclusive learning and remove barriers for disabled students. For example, enhancing accessibility features like audio narration, sign language video, and simplified text allowed students with disabilities to learn online.

Other at-risk groups also benefited from the promotion of inclusive learning during the pandemic. For example, students from low-income families sometimes only get one meal per day at school. Therefore, the United States Department of Agriculture provided complimentary breakfast and lunch to all K-12 students during the pandemic and the 2021-2022 school year. This program promised inclusivity during this time of hardship by ensuring all students had access to meals so hunger did not interfere with learning.

Staggered Schedules for Reopening Schools

Distance learning provided the chance for schools in the United States to reopen and maintain social distancing. As a result, many districts chose to implement a hybrid model of staggered scheduling for students. For example, some students attended face-to-face classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, while others attended Tuesdays and Thursdays. On opposite days, students attended online classes, and the entire school attended Friday classes online.

One of the biggest challenges of distance learning is the ability of teachers to assess their students’ learning progress. Additionally, offering remedial programs for students who need extra help is also challenging online. By creating staggered schedules, many teachers gave exams in-person to ensure students met academic benchmarks and provided more guidance to students who needed it.

Moving Forward: Policy Recommendations Being Discussed and Evaluated by Leaders in the Education Sector

While the pandemic wreaked havoc on education worldwide, it also revealed cracks in the American education system like never before. As a result, educators and specialists in the sector dedicated ample time and resources to examine the problems revealed by the pandemic and offer policy solutions moving forward.

The likelihood of things returning to “a pre-pandemic normal” is slim to none, and it looks like some form of COVID-19 is here to stay for a while. Moving forward requires taking notice of the failures and disparities the pandemic revealed in the U.S. education system and implementing corrective policies while still keeping students safe from contracting the virus as they learn.

Some of the policy recommendations being discussed and evaluated in the education sector include, but are not limited to:

Strengthening the Resilience of the U.S. Education System

All children have the right to an education. Focusing on resilience puts schools in a position to cope with future crises, making equal and inclusive education systems more sustainable. Policy initiatives being discussed that can improve resilience during chaotic times like the pandemic include:

  • Focus on marginalized groups to ensure they receive a quality education and put them at the top of the list during emergencies.
  • Reinforce individual, organizational, and institutional capacities to handle emergencies, such as developing and implementing contingency plans for delivering curriculum to students.
  • Hire and train strong leaders who know how to coordinate to avoid inefficiency during crises like the pandemic. Education resilience is at its strongest when things go smoothly during an emergency.
  • Enhance mechanisms for consultation and communication for all actors involved, including teachers, parents, and students, especially as they pertain to marginalized groups.

Reforming Education to Accelerate Positive Change

Responses to the pandemic have highlighted significant divides that put educational outcomes at risk for many students, especially marginalized groups. As we advance, it’s crucial to ensure that the U.S. education system is more flexible, equitable, and inclusive. The shock of the pandemic showed that change is possible, even in those areas previously regarded as complex. 

Education leaders across the country are considering a variety of measures to help accelerate positive change, including but not limited to:

  • Preparing students for the labor market by offering more skills-based programs in secondary school. After all, skilled labor made up ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic.
  • Provide students training for jobs that provide basic needs and services, such as healthcare workers, caregivers, and teachers!
  • Support teachers and train them to be ready when disaster strikes. It takes more than technology for students to have strong outcomes when the system must undergo changes because of a pandemic or similar situation.
  • Provide teachers with the pedagogical skills they need to implement accelerated curricula and various learning strategies.

Addressing Learning Losses

Unfortunately, many students experienced learning loss during the pandemic. Moving forward, those in the education sector are looking to address these losses and prevent dropouts. 

Ultimately, lessons from the pandemic reveal three priorities related to learning losses:

  • Helps students who fell behind catch up where they fell behind during the pandemic.
  • Bring secondary students who left school back into the classroom to ensure they complete their education and not drop out.
  • Focus on the health and well-being of students, teachers, and staff to meet the goals above.

Catching up on learning losses also requires removing barriers to connectivity. The pandemic highlighted disparities between districts where kids had tablets, laptops, and internet service and those that did not. Districts, local governments, state governments, and the federal government are considering removing these technology-related barriers by investing in digital infrastructure in underserved communities and reducing the cost it takes for students to be connected. 

Leveraging Data and Assessment

You cannot simply throw a dart and make guesses to move forward effectively. Data should be strong, and relevant parties in the education sector might consider implementing the right tools to collect and analyze data. Monitoring data at the student, teacher, school, and district levels can provide data-driven questions and solutions, potentially leading to new approaches to problems revealed during the pandemic.

Additionally, teacher and student assessments are tantamount to positive change, but it was challenging and sometimes impossible during the pandemic. It has been discussed that schools might consider expanding teachers’ skills to include best practices for distance learning, including capabilities for student assessment. Finally, the production of quality data enables schools and other educational organizations to monitor the system and make data-driven changes that ultimately result in positive student outcomes.

Revolutionizing the Education Sector

COVID-19 has been the catalyst that could revolutionize the education sector for generations to come. It offers us a high-level short-term view of the biggest threats and opportunities we need to address and implement. With the right people in the right roles in schools and other educational organizations, changes that once seemed impossible can be a reality.

WorkMonger works with all types of organizations in the education sector that focus on providing access to quality education for all students. We specialize in matching employees and employers in entry-level to executive-level non-teaching roles. Quality teachers and outstanding student outcomes are of the utmost importance. At WorkMonger, we understand that behind every teacher, professionals are engaging in various activities that support them, and we are here to help.

Whether you are seeking employment in the education sector or you need to find top talent to enrich your organization, contact WorkMonger today to access our extensive network of connections throughout the nation.

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