Did we really learn anything about schools in the pandemic?

If you Google “lessons learned about schools during the pandemic” you will see a long list of articles that purport to tell us about all the things we learned about teaching and learning in the two years since the coronavirus crisis began in March 2020.

Many of the pieces highlight similar “lessons” — on inequity, technology, in-school learning, funding mechanisms and other issues — that apparently hadn’t been thought of before.

We learned, supposedly, that:

  • In-person school is vital and much better for most students than virtual learning and that relationships between teachers and students, and students and their peers are vital;
  • Millions of students go to school without working HVAC systems, working toilets and other basic resources;
  • Millions of students would go hungry if they didn’t get meals at school, and live in homes without technology or access to it;
  • Millions of America’s young people go to school with significant mental health issues and that schools did not have the capacity to deal with them;
  • Technology in schools — hyped by enthusiasts as the wave of the future — has significant limits and is not the heart of great teaching and learning;
  • Teachers don’t just teach subject matter but are asked to be counselors, role models, mentors, identifiers and reporters of child abuse, testing administrators, disciplinarians, child advocates, parent communicators, hall and lunch monitors, etc.;
  • School districts were largely not ready for a crisis of this magnitude and need to become more flexible to accommodate changes in routine and student needs.

But for anybody paying the slightest bit of attention there is nothing on the list of pandemic school “lessons” that we didn’t already know before covid-19 — and for a long, long time.

Ask any teacher — and there are at least 3 million full-time educators — and the vast majority will tell you that teaching and learning works better for most kids in person. Here’s the thing: policymakers don’t ask teachers for advice about education. Guess how many teachers were involved in the drafting of the landmark No Child Left Behind Act, which then-President George W. Bush signed in 2002 and ushered in the era of high-stakes standardized tests? Zero. That’s how many, according to education historian Diane Ravitch.

inequitable resources? In 1965, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Elementary and Secondary School Act was considered landmark legislation to move education to the front of the national War on Poverty. Title 1, a key provision, provided extra federal funding for schools and school districts with a higher percentage of students from low-income homes. Since then, Title I has been plagued by a faulty funding formula that spreads federal dollars so thin that it makes little difference in many places, and allows large wealthy districts to win bigger percentages of money than high-poverty urban and rural districts with fewer students . Policymakers know this. They talk about it. They have attempted to fix it. The problems persist.

At the state and local levels, where most of education funding emanates, we’ve read report after report over decades about the persistent differences in funding per student from district to district, state to state, suburb vs. urban, urban vs. rural. States have different ways they allocate K-12 and special funding — and the amounts vary widely; in fiscal year 2020, according to the Census Bureau, New York State spent $25,520 per student while Idaho spent $8,272 per student and Florida spent $9,937 per student.

There are vast differences within states as well; Reports released periodically showing wide differences across school district boundary lines. For example, a 2019 report by EdBuild found that “almost 9 million students in America — one in five public schoolchildren — live virtually across the street from a significantly whiter and richer school district.”

Americans and their policymakers knew about food insecurity, too. That children would go hungry without free and reduced-price meals at schools is, again, hardly any news. The School Lunch Act of 1946 — repeat, 1946 — was set up to help students from low-income schools get free or reduced-price lunches. The need was obvious then, and neither the awareness of that need nor the program ever disappeared. In 1966, the School Breakfast Program began a two-year pilot and that was extended a number of times. By 1975, the program received permanent authorization. Now some schools also provide meals for students to take home over weekends so they don’t go home. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, in 2019, more than 1 in 7 children — nearly 11 million — lived in households considered “food insecure,” meaning there isn’t enough to eat and families skip meals, eat low-cost food or go hungry.

The digital divide? The term emerged in the mid 1990s to describe the gap between families with access to computers and those who don’t. The definition broadened to include access to the Internet, and, later, to inequity in usage and skills. When schools closed in the face of the coronavirus in March 2020, it was big news that millions of students had no computers or access to the internet at home. You can find articles on the Internet with a headline that looks something like this: “The pandemic revealed the digital divide.” But revealed to whom?

In April 2020, according to the Pew Research Center, “59 percent of parents with lower incomes who had children in schools that were remote due to the pandemic said their children would likely face at least one of three digital obstacles to their schooling, such as a lack of reliable internet at home, no computer at home, or needing to use a smartphone to complete schoolwork.”

At that time, school districts bought computers and other devices for families without them and arranged for low-cost Internet service. But in 2021, a Pew Research Center survey of US adults found the digital divide remained stubborn: “[T]he digital lives of Americans with lower and higher incomes remain markedly different. … In fact, the shares of Americans in each income tier who have home broadband or a smartphone have not changed significantly from 2019 to 2021.”

Forty-threee percent of adults with lower incomes said they had no home broadband services, and 41 percent said they had no desktop or laptop computer. In households earning $100,000 or more a year, those were nearly universal. Low-income families rely largely on smartphones to perform tasks “traditionally reserved for larger screens,” the survey said. Students trying to do their schoolwork on a smartphone are certainly at a disadvantage to those who have larger screens.

Despite the hue and cry over the digital divide at the start of the pandemic, Pew noted last September: “However, when it comes to views of policy solutions for Internet access more generally, not much has changed. Some 37 percent of Americans say that the government has a responsibility to ensure all Americans have high-speed internet access during the outbreak, and the overall share is unchanged from April 2020 — the first time Americans were asked this specific question about the government’s pandemic responsibility to provide Internet access.”

There is a lot of attention now being placed on the mental health stresses on students during the pandemic, and that is certainly true. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) jointly declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health.

“The pandemic has struck at the safety and stability of families,” the declaration says. “More than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities.”

But let’s be clear: Children have been in crisis in this country for years. “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020,” that declaration says, “and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24.” That was two years before the pandemic. You might think schools would have made historic investments in counselors, nurses and mental health providers, but, no, they didn’t.

In February 2018, I wrote a post with this headline: “If Americans really cared about students’ mental health, these school ratios would be very different.” It said in part:

In US public schools today, it’s estimated there is one school psychologist for every 1,381 students. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students (which itself makes very busy work days for psychologists).

Let’s turn to school counselors.

According to the latest available information from the American School Counselor Association, there was one counselor for every 482 students in 2014-2015. It’s nearly twice what the association recommends: one counselor for every 250 students (which makes for very busy days for school counselors.)

And then there are school-based nurses. The National Association of School Nurses and the National Association of State School Nurse Consultants recommend that every student have direct access to a school nurse, although some states have recommended there be one school nurse for every 750 students in the healthy student population (which makes for a busy day for school nurses).

Yet a 2017 survey by the National Association of School Nurses found that only 39 percent of private and public schools in the United States have full-time nurses.

If Americans really cared about students’ mental health, these school ratios would be very different

School districts got major infusions of federal money from the Biden administration that can be used to add necessary staff — and some states and districts are now beefing up their corps of mental health professionals. But others are reluctant to add staff members when the funding is not dedicated — and it remains to be seen how sustained the new efforts will prove to be.

As for the value of teachers, there was a brief moment at the start of the pandemic that they were hailed as heroes as parents who were home trying to guide their children’s academic work expressed appreciation for all the things teachers do. At 1:12 pm on March 16, 2020, the day that more than half of US states closed public schools, television queen Shonda Rhimes famously tweeted: “Been home schooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”

But it didn’t take long for that narrative to start and revert to the teacher-bashing of old as educators became villains for demanding vaccine mandates and safety protections in schools. Some unions did work to keep schools closed longer than seemed wise — such as in Washington DC — but vitriol about teachers and public schools became common again. By the start of 2021, Education Week published a story with this headline: “Has the Public Turned on Teachers? At First Deemed Pandemic Heroes, Some Now Feel Like Villains.”

There were other so-called lessons, too. School districts are ill-prepared for a disaster, the pandemic showed. We knew that before. School funding mechanisms tied to student attendance are too restrictive. We knew that too.

So much for the “lessons” we learned about our schools during the pandemic. The problems rooted in these lessons have long existed. Americans and the people they elect to make policy have known about them for decades. They have simply chosen to do other things rather than make serious attempts to fix them.

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