image: MIA Studio

Aaron Loewenberg on the Impact for Early and Elementary Education

Early educators have been working tirelessly for months to offer high quality online learning for their students, but the reality is that learning exclusively online doesn't compare to the benefits of face-to-face interactions between teachers and young children. The difficulty of keeping young kids engaged via a computer screen has led many parents to opt out of pre-K and kindergarten, depriving students of valuable early learning opportunities and ensuring budget difficulties for schools and districts in the years ahead.

To ensure young children reap the well-known benefits of high quality early education, pre-K to third grade students should be prioritized for a return to in-person learning. We now know young children don’t spread the virus easily and they’re the group least able to successfully learn in a virtual setting. And an important first step to this was Congress acting on President Biden's $1.9 trillion stimulus plan which includes about $129 billion to help schools safely reopen.

Elena Silva on the Impact on Students with Disabilities

The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools for more than 7 million students with disabilities, testing our public education system’s capacity and commitment to serve some of our most vulnerable students. The impact on these students, who receive special education services for disabilities including speech, language, and hearing impairments, autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, and emotional and behavioral disabilities, was immediate and will be long-lasting. Districts and schools struggled to provide remote services and accomodations, to conduct evaluations, hold planning meetings, and develop the still mostly paper-based Individualized Education Plans. Students lost access to in-person instruction, counseling services, speech, physical and occupational therapies, and a host of other medical and health services.

The pandemic exposed major faults in both policy and practice but it also opened the system to much-needed innovations, including the design of collaborative online learning plans, the use of new teaching and learning technologies, and the broader adoption of hybrid support services that can take place in both school and home settings.

Sabia Prescott on the Impact for Learning Technology

Over the last year, New America’s Teaching, Learning, and Tech (TLT) team dove deep into issues of digital equity that have long been present but seldom discussed in mainstream discourse. The pandemic did not create the challenges that millions of students are experiencing in online learning—it only exacerbated issues that were present all along: inequitable access to technology and digital skills needed for inclusive, responsive education. Leveraging this moment for change will mean going beyond a return to “normal”—which wasn’t working for most students already—toward systems that recognize, validate, and support the learning needs of all students, online and off. With the goal of capitalizing on this moment, the TLT team is creating space for these conversations around collaborative thinking and action for more equitable education.

Leslie Villegas on the Impact for English Learners

For the 5 million English learners (ELs) enrolled in K-12 schools, online learning has exacerbated preexisting inequities. ELs have faced barriers in accessing the devices and broadband necessary to engage in online schooling, and once online, have had minimal opportunity to develop their English language skills. Many teachers were not prepared to address ELs’ unique learning needs, and school districts have struggled to provide robust language learning support. As a result, many ELs have disengaged from their own education.

While states have tried to provide teaching strategies and guidance on how to identify English learner needs, more collaboration is needed between general education and ESL teachers to ensure ELs’ academic and English development needs are being considered and incorporated in remote lessons. Both the federal government and states must assess the pandemic’s impact on ELs’ opportunity to learn and target resources to minimize the disproportionate learning loss these students have experienced. A good place to start would be extended learning opportunities and digital tools specifically to help ELs continue to learn English while improving their academic performance.

Monique Ositelu on the Impact on Higher Education for Incarcerated Students

In response to the pandemic, colleges and universities across the United States suspended in-person classes, with many turning to online formats. Although converting to virtual platforms came with its own challenges, these obstacles were exacerbated for incarcerated students.

About 21 percent of adults in federal and state prisons participate in correctional college programs. During the pandemic, many college-in-prison programs reverted to the original conventions of prison education, sending students a packet of materials to complete and then return to instructors. Removing in-person instructors and college staff raised concerns about equitable learning, personal development, and the prison culture. However, this pedagogical shift prompted instructors and programs to strategically think through ways to avoid rote-memorization and ensure students received quality education equitable to in-person instruction.

Although some feared the pandemic would threaten the substantial progress of college-in-prison programs, higher education in prison rose to the occasion. In December 2020, Congress restored Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated college students. This federal legislation reiterates the importance of college programs in prisons and their ability to adapt to unprecedented challenges.

Shalin Jyotishi on the Impact for Community College Students

Community college students were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic-induced move to online education. About 80 percent of community college students also work full or part time. Unemployment spikes forced many students to delay or cancel their college plans. Those who remained faced challenges in managing coursework online, from finding adequate broadband access to acclimating to a remote environment. Studies have shown that community college students tend to complete online courses at a lower rate compared to in-person instruction. Students in online classes are 3–15 percent more likely to withdraw than similar students in face-to-face classes. Still, the expansion of online education at community colleges can be a force for good—more students can now pursue their studies at a schedule that works for them, but more needs to be done to maximize the opportunity of online education. We should continue to expand student services, tutoring, advising, financial aid programs, employer partnerships at community colleges.