When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. last March, K-12 institutions struggled to rapidly adapt to an online format.
Over a year has passed since that initial transition, and experts in education policy, administration, and public health say the new challenge is safely shepherding students back into classrooms — and making the most of this pivotal moment.
In interviews with The Crimson, experts argued the transition back to in-person instruction is both possible and deeply necessary, though it will require strong safety protocols and student compliance — especially as teachers and school staff await their vaccines.
Paul Reville, a Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said the pandemic has been “enormously challenging” for teachers, school administrators, students, and families.
Amid continuing calls for school reopenings, he said the challenge of rebuilding relationships is compromised by months of virtual education.
“It’s had a significant effect on relationships,” he said. “It's fractured relationships between students and their schools, between students and teachers and students with one another,”
HGSE professor Meira Levinson said school re-openings have been uneven thus far, explaining that disadvantaged children are likely to be trapped longer in the era of remote learning.
“Low income people of color tend to live in more dense housing, tend to have access to worse medical care, are contracting Covid at higher rates, have more serious outcomes, including a higher risk of death,” she said. “Therefore, [they] are quite reasonably not sending their kids back to school.”
She added the divide between them and more privileged families will worsen if school reopenings are not handled with equity in mind. .
“It is very, very likely that it is more historically privileged families who are going to be taking advantage of reopening schools, and more historically marginalized and vulnerable families who are going to keep their kids virtual, and that in itself will also exacerbate inequities and systemic injustices.”
Similarly, Reville said he is concerned with growing educational inequities among students.
“There have been very substantial equity challenges in all of this,” said Reville. “If we had gaps, and we did have profound gaps in our ability and performance in serving our students prior to the pandemic, the gaps have even grown greater—the achievement gaps, the opportunity gaps, the inspiration gaps that affect young people.”
Fracturing relationships and growing inequalities present clear challenges for continuing virtual education. Experts, however, said students can indeed safely return to schools with the proper protocols in place.
Katharine O. Strunk, an education policy professor at Michigan State University, said she studied research on the effects of school reopenings on Covid-19 transmission rates in the states of Michigan and Washington. Strunk said schools that deploy social distancing and operate at a capacity below 75 percent do not appear to fuel Covid spread in the surrounding area.
Barry R. Bloom, an immunology and infectious disease professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said there are already plans for Massachusetts schools to begin the re-opening process this semester.
“The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has set a target for April 5th, where they will open lower school levels, which have the least risk and the greatest need for the students to be socialized, and begin all the basic learning skills that they will need,” he said. “That will be followed in a couple of weeks by junior high school people. And that will be followed later at the end of April by high school students.”
Bloom said lower school levels made sense as a first target, since young children are more “compliant” when it comes to wearing masks, and are also less likely to spread the disease — both critical factors to keep teachers safe until they get vaccinated.
Joseph G. Allen, a professor of exposure assessment science at the HSPH, said the country has the tools to reopen schools now — and certainly by the fall.
“There's no question that K-12 schools should be open full time in September,” he said. “If that doesn't happen, it'll be the grossest of failings of our country.”
As schools are poised to reopen, experts said the country should take advantage of this pivotal moment to re-examine and modify our model of education.
Jal D. Mehta ’99, a professor at HGSE, said he believes it is necessary to “reinvent” schools and continue the pedagogical innovation jump-started by the pandemic. He noted some students have not only enjoyed learning online, but have functioned better at home because of it.
“Schools pre-pandemic weren't working well for lots of students,” Mehta said. “There's data that shows that about 75 percent of fifth graders report being engaged in schools and about 32 percent of 11th graders report similarly being engaged in schools.”
Essentially, the longer students are in school, the less engaged they feel,” he said.
Mehta said he believes problems in the pre-pandemic education system, such as a lack of engagement in learning, should be revised as students flock back to classrooms.
“I don't think it will be automatic or seismic, but I think that you'll see a lot of small reinventions in different places and maybe that can crystallize into something bigger,” Mehta said.
Reville said schools should continue the process of pedagogical reflection and reform initiated by the pandemic.
“We’re operating a factory model of education that we designed in the early 20th century, and no longer is it effective at meeting the needs of the wide range of students we serve,” he said.
“We need a personalized system, something that individualizes and customizes attention to each student, a system that meets children where they are and gives them what they need, both inside and outside of school,” Reville added.
— Staff writer Omar Abdel Haq can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ashley R. Masci can be reached at email@example.com.