Coronavirus has changed school forever, let’s make it an improvement

It’s time to re-imagine public education not just to face the pandemic, but to eliminate racial and economic inequities we’ve long known about

Arne Duncan and Rey SaldañaOpinion contributors

As an unprecedented academic year grinds to an end, with schools shuttered and millions of children learning remotely in every state, education leaders face the daunting task of preparing for a fall reopening with no end to the pandemic in sight. 

Back to school will not be back to normal. But neither should it be a return to business as usual. 

As we embark on our nationwide effort to reenter school buildings, we must determine not just how far apart desks need to be, whether attendance should be staggered, and how often to sanitize facilities. We must also ask how we can build an education system that gives every child in every U.S. community the opportunity to learn and succeed. A system better than the one we left behind in the time before COVID-19 and before George Floyd’s horrific death at the hands of Minneapolis police catalyzed waves of protest across the nation against injustice and structural inequality. 

Unprecedented times need unprecedented change

A moment when we are experiencing a national health emergency and nationwide discontent may seem like exactly the wrong time to propose a bold new direction in American public education. But the coronavirus has changed everything, and the Floyd protests have shone a light on inequity inherent to all our systems, including education. 

The only way to adequately respond to both moments is to transform K–12 learning for good. Doing so will require a significant federal investment in education. The costs will certainly be high, but the long-term price of inaction will be even higher. 

A Kindergarten teacher at Wabeno Elementary School on June 4, 2019, in Wabeno, Wisconsin.

An utter lack of leadership and guidance from Washington on how states and school districts should move forward with the virus continuing to circulate is a hurdle. But local leaders across America have shown boundless creativity in the months since schools started closing their doors. They’ve done their best to find new ways to educate, feed, and support students and stay connected to families. 

Now, we must move beyond short-term solutions. Any path forward must address extended learning loss among students caused by necessary spring school closures — what experts are calling the “COVID slide” — and avoid it if future rolling shutdowns are necessary. A solid plan for the future must also deal with the ways the coronavirus has exacerbated longstanding educational inequities experienced by many vulnerable children, including poor students and many students of color. 

Principles for creating a new public education system

There won’t be one solution, but rather a combination of approaches. Here are some of the evidence-backed principles around which we can reimagine a more just system of public education:

► The school calendar is an obsolete notion. Children are now so far behind — likely a third of a year behind in reading and half a year or more behind in math — we can’t wait for fall to help them catch up. Academic recovery has to start now — and summer programs should be offered multiple years. With the possibility that the coronavirus will be with us for years to come, school districts should consider a year-round academic calendar, to expand children’s learning time.

► Education can be personalized. Schools will likely not be able to welcome all children back at once — or at all — in the fall. Schools need to make an individualized education plan for every student that takes academic and social-emotional needs into account. Students with the highest academic and social needs will need more face-to-face time. Out of necessity, many school districts will limit class size to reduce the risk of infection; that can also help us focus on grouping children in ways that best suit their learning styles.

► Competency matters, not seat time. We need to rethink how we expect kids to learn and how we evaluate them. For example, Cleveland’s school district has proposed grouping learners in bands of grades, rather than assigning them to a single grade level. That’s how many preschools operate, advancing children when they’re ready, rather than at the end of an academic year. Competency-based teaching will be helpful not only to deal with the COVID slide but also the natural differences in learning between children and gaps caused by racial and income disparities.

► Supporting students’ non-academic needs is necessary, not “nice-to-have.” The national education nonprofit Communities In Schools estimates that for $5 billion to $7 billion a year, we could invest in individualized case management for every child in Title 1 school and support their non-academic needs. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we spend on broken systems like policing and comparable to what New York City spends on law enforcement each year. These integrated supports could be coordinated by a staffer from the school district or a local nonprofit. Either way, critical student services such as physical and mental health services, housing, food, and assistance with other needs enable kids to learn to their full ability and teachers to focus on teaching. These services will be even more critical in the coming months, with high unemployment and economic uncertainty. 

National Institutes of Health director: ‘The virus is very much out there’

These kinds of systemwide changes will require deep investment in human capital, technology, and school infrastructure. Many local budgets have been strained by the coronavirus and the protests, and local and state sales taxes are sure to be down next year. States and school districts will surely be forced to make steep cuts. Absent a federal stimulus package that’s real to make up for the shortfall, and fund the additional needs, the effects on local schools and students will be devastating. 

Even in a pandemic, our nation’s leaders have the chance to improve education for today’s children and generations to come. They should seize it.