We need to combat 2020’s child education crisis

Illustration of a student trying to prevent multiple school and money related domino symbols from toppling, all while being abandoned by a group.
Lucy Yang/Staff

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The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged nearly every part of life in the United States After nearly a year, many industries remain riddled with post-COVID-19 uncertainty. While some pitfalls, economic ones in particular, receive continuous coverage, one sector that has been drastically overlooked is education.

Amid the pandemic, some polls show that while 70% of Americans believe the most pressing issues are the economy, race relations, COVID-19 or the government, only 1% think the same of education.

Over the years, K-12 education has often been discussed only when it intersects with other issues of childhood nutrition or crime. Perhaps this is why academic content, resources and equity are often left out of the national discussion.

Still, in presidential elections, education is notoriously a topic of debate. But in this year’s election, there was little discussion. The intersection between higher education and debt was discussed in some detail, especially during the Democratic primary, but didn’t seem to go any further. This stands in stark contrast to previous national priorities.

In 2002, former President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. At the time, polls found that 10% of Americans identified education as the most pressing issue in the nation — still too small, but a sharp contrast to the mere 1% who share this sentiment today.

While it appears that shifting attitudes toward education are a recent trend, history suggests otherwise, particularly in times of crisis.

Education has been significantly compromised during deadly pandemics and national crises. During the Great Depression, for instance, roughly 20,000 schools closed down nationwide, leaving many students burdened with acquiring their own supplies.

Out of the Depression came assistance programs such as the National Youth Administration, which provided part-time employment for high school and college students in need. At the peak of the program, approximately 750,000 students were enrolled. Many of the participants lacked basic skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic and vocational skills, demonstrating the detrimental effects that a lack of foundational education can have on young adults.

Our current — and similar situation — is bound to also have a domino effect on K-12 students as they transition into adulthood.

Trends observed today indicate discrepancies among different school districts’ abilities to provide sufficient technology for their students, something now essential for proper online learning as well as for securing a stable future.

Currently, more than 9 million children lack internet access at home for online learning. A 2020 study projects that the impacts of COVID-19 on academic achievement will result in students falling behind by a third of a year in reading and up to two-thirds of a year in math by fall 2020.

It is also projected that the average K-12 student in the United States today may lose between $61,000 and $82,000 in lifetime earnings due to educational disruptions caused by the pandemic.

Although the pandemic has affected, and will inevitably continue to affect, all students, effects will not be borne equally given the disparities in funding and resources among schools nationwide.

As the pandemic continues, it may also grow difficult to know how deeply students have been affected, especially because children can easily slip between the cracks when stuck at home. This was demonstrated in a recent study conducted by CBS News, which found that among roughly eighty of the nation’s largest school districts, at least 240,000 students are not enrolled in school.

And even if students are enrolled and showing up to class, it will become increasingly difficult to assess whether they are being educated actively and adequately. This is especially difficult as some students are forced to struggle through uneven educational formats and even relocate in and out of school districts.

The U.S. government issuing a nationwide in-person school shutdown would allow for all students to be educated under the same format, making it easier to account for all K-12 students. A universal format would help remove variables among different states and districts, especially considering disparities in the public education system that existed before the pandemic.

A federal mandate would also need to include plans to guarantee every student access to reliable technology and supplement resources students would normally receive at school, such as counseling, tutoring, nurses and free or reduced meals.

School is a safe space for many children, a place where they can confide in a counselor or eat their only meal that day. During this critical period of child development, it is important officials promote equity in such spaces.

Just short of 60 million K-12 students are projected to attend online school for Spring 2021, and it is crucial that changes are made to avoid any further delayed recovery, especially in the nation’s most vulnerable school districts. If more people acknowledge the importance of the current crisis of K-12 education, a discussion can begin on the local and federal level that will help ensure all children growing up during COVID-19 are given the opportunity to succeed and thrive.

Sara Amare is a student at UC Berkeley.