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How Covid-19 Infected K-12 Education and How It May Help

by Jayne O’Donnell and Richard Willing 

For all the despair and death it wrought, Covid-19 may yet prove to have a positive impact on the U.S. education system. Experts say – and educators hope – that record levels of federal money designated to address lost learning and bolster student mental health may also be directed toward some of the seemingly intractable problems that have bedeviled school systems for decades. 

The pandemic widened the “opportunity and achievement gaps” that were already evident with students of color from under-resourced communities, creating new pressure on school systems to allocate the windfall of funding wisely to reverse the trend, a July 2021 article by researchers at consulting firm McKinsey concluded. 

“Federal funds are in place to help states and districts respond, though funding is only part of the answer,” said the authors. “The deep-rooted challenges in our school systems predate the pandemic and have resisted many reform efforts.” 

During the pandemic, students historically the most likely to drop out were at an increased risk of doing so. placing new pressure on education to retain students.

Students who drop out today are likely to earn $49,000 to $61,000 less over their lifetime than they would have otherwise due to the pandemic’s effect on their schooling, the McKinsey researchers found. 

In light of those numbers, student retention is receiving renewed attention. 

Post-pandemic, the education system needs to be rebuilt to focus on “nurturing the whole child, balancing cognitive with socioemotional skills development and ensuring that all children have access to the conditions and resources that enhance learning and development,” the nonprofit, nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute said in a September 2020 report. 

Educational reformers say the pandemic highlighted how standardized tests in grade schools exacerbate educational disparities. EPI said these tests “could overwhelm or label children when what they need now are diagnostic assessments and needs-based assessments” to see where their needs lie and how to address them. 

The pandemic-driven switch to remote learning had its bright spots. Lack of connectivity led first to students taking remote classes in the parking lots of fast food restaurants to get Internet access. Pretty soon, though, the lack of devices and Wifi led to increased funding for computers and hotspots for students in many

under-resourced areas. Still, Zena Whitworth, a longtime Prince George’s County, Maryland English and journalism teacher said, the solution proposed by too many of the newly-funded programs involve screens. What students really need is social engagement and in-person help, she said. 

As reopened schools became havens for students with increased mental health challenges, the education system came under renewed pressure to increase access and support for those who were struggling. Going forward, far more schools are expected to have in-house mental health centers and additional counselors. There was plenty of proof they’re needed. 

Hopeful Futures, a coalition of mental health organizations, reported in February 2021 that only Washington, D.C. and Idaho exceeded the nationally recommended ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students. The report on state policies on school mental health also found five states – West Virginia, Missouri, Texas, Alaska, and Georgia – employ only one school psychologist per well over 4,000 students. 

“Left unchecked, unfinished learning could have severe consequences for students’ opportunities and prospects. It is not too late to mitigate these threats, and funding is now in place,” wrote McKinsey’s Emma Dorn and colleagues. “Districts and

states now have the opportunity to spend that money effectively to support our nation’s students.” 

O’Donnell, USA TODAY’s health policy reporter until April 2013, is founder and CEO of Youthcast Media Group (YMG). Willing, her husband, is a former legal and intelligence reporter for USA TODAY and a YMG volunteer editor and instructor.

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