When America’s public school system began creeping back open in January 2021 after last year’s holiday break, only 32% of children were in school full-time five days a week – the majority of them from middle- and upper-income school districts that served mostly white families.
“We owe it to our students – especially students in underserved communities and students with disabilities – to get all our schools opened safely and to meet the social, emotional, mental health, and academic needs of all students,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in one of his first communications as a newly minted member of the Biden administration.
“It will take years to address the devastating impacts of COVID-19 – including the ways that the pandemic exacerbated the existing inequities in our education system,” he said, acknowledging the stark disparities in access to education in year two of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, heading into 2022, virtually all of the country’s 51 million children are back in classrooms learning in person – an incredible victory given states’ disparate responses to the risks posed by COVID-19 and the country’s bifurcated education system in which schools have access to varying levels of resources.
Of course the path to the universal reopening was made possible, in large part, by two major changes to the education landscape: an unprecedented influx of federal aid to the K-12 system and the availability of vaccines, both for teachers and students.
“Last Christmas, our children were at risk without a COVID-19 vaccine,” President Joe Biden said earlier this month. “This Christmas, we have safe and effective vaccines for children 5 and over, with 20 million children and counting now vaccinated. Last year, a majority of our schools were closed at Christmas time. Now, 99% of our schools are open.”
But over the course of the last calendar year, several other significant shifts occurred, too – shifts that many believe have laid the groundwork for seismic overhauls in what’s asked of public schools, how they’re supported, and how they serve students and their families.
“Students’ diverse needs demand diverse solutions,” says Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education. “We have to think about reaching kids in new ways, and now is a critical time for us to ask older students and parents, ‘What are your family’s needs and how can we address them in creative ways?’ and ‘What do you want longer term?’”
“There is serious demand for this,” she says. “Whether or not we realize that, change will depend on forward-thinking system leaders and school leaders and, barring that, advocacy from the community to do something about it.”
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With more than $200 billion in federal aid directed to the K-12 system to help schools reopen safely, hire additional staff and begin making inroads on the academic, social and emotional learning loss incurred over the last two year, schools have seen an influx of resources like never before – and they stand to gain even more.
If Congress can find a path forward on its appropriations packages, the federal government’s biggest education programs stand to receive a windfall, including doubling funding for Title I, the program that supports school districts that serve large portions of low-income families, and supercharging funding for students with disabilities. And the Build Back Better package could add up to $400 billion for new child care and universal pre-kindergarten programs – programs that crumbled under the weight of the pandemic and funding that early childhood experts are calling a “game-changer” for the country’s education system.
The pandemic also highlighted how public schools are much more than just a place for learning. They provide a whole host of community support – from food to health care to internet connections, job training, language services and more. And research shows school leaders are intent on finding a way to ensure they can continue providing a wide range of support when the pandemic is over.
At least some of the federal funding, should Congress clear it, would go to a model of schooling that would allow school leaders to continue those efforts and one that the Biden administration has been trying to prioritize: community schools. Such facilities seek to understand what the families of their students need and then find a way to provide that support – something that often happens naturally in communities with more economic, social and political capital but which is often left unchecked in low-income and socio-economically diverse neighborhoods.
Community schools have become increasingly important for the Biden administration – as well as for the two biggest national teachers unions – as a way to address inequity in the K-12 system and also as a way to blunt enrollment drops that have especially haunted big urban school districts in the last two years.
And with college enrollment down significantly even with a record number of colleges not requiring the SAT and ACT entrance exams – especially among students from low-income families – education experts also anticipate an entire rethinking of preparing high school students for what comes after graduation with renewed emphasis on certifications and job training.
“The interest in reinventing high school is very, very high among district leaders and the need is great,” Lake says. “That need was emerging pre-pandemic, and I think there will be an explosion in career pathway programs and faster, more affordable routes to colleges, including dual enrollments, apprenticeships, partnerships between colleges and industries at the high school level.”
While the school year is only half over, perhaps nothing stood out more in calendar year 2021 in the education space than the elevation of parents, who turned into teacher’s aides overnight when schools across the country shuttered at the onset of the pandemic and who had a front-row view of the type of education their children received.
“It was disappointing to watch a lot of schools, a lot of administrators, a lot of policymakers, a lot of school boards and school committees, assume that we were just going to ooze back into the transactional relationship we had with parents and communities without any acknowledgement of how much these folks stepped up and were the co-facilitators of education,” says Keri Rodrigues, the founding president of the National Parents Union.
“Their failure to listen and respond and pivot and actually evolve is where a lot of the friction we’re seeing right now comes from,” she says. “We have a vested interest in the success of the system, and the system needs to change. If you do not evolve, if you do not change, if you do not listen, parents will vote with their feet. The times have changed, the system needs to change with it.”
Parent voices are expected to increase in influence moving ahead into the new year. And to be sure, those voices were behind Biden’s push to reopen the majority of K-12 schools for in-person learning during the first 100 days of his administration.
Yet undercutting the top-line victory of schools being open for in-person learning is a host of ongoing challenges, including an acute mental health crisis among adolescents that prompted Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to issue a rare warning.
“It would be a tragedy if we beat back one public health crisis only to allow another to grow in its place,” he said. “This is a critical issue that we have to do something about now. We can’t wait until after the pandemic is over.”
In a 53-page report – a clarion call to action – Murthy noted that 1 in 3 high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a 40% increase from 2009 to 2019, and that suicide rates also increased during that time by 57% among youth ages 10 to 24.
The surgeon general also cited soaring rates of anxiety and depression, worsened by the pandemic as well as concerns over gun violence, climate change, racism, and social and political conflict.
School leaders are also bracing for a continuation of the education culture wars – battles over critical race theory, banning books, vaccination and masking policies and the rights of transgender students – which ignited protests at school board meetings, led to record numbers of recall attempts and are expected to play a big role in the 2022 midterm elections as part of a major GOP strategy to motivate the base and woo parents back to the Republican Party.
“Leaders in both parties have already accepted that narrative and are acting on it,” says Martin West, academic dean and professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “There is little doubt that we’ll continue to see these issues receive a lot of attention in the 2022 midterm election, in statewide and national elections and perhaps beyond. And there is no doubt that we will see a continued uptick in school board races.”
Of course, top of mind as parents prepare to send children back to school next week is the risk posed by the highly contagious omicron variant that’s driving up pediatric infection rates and threatening to close schools.
Cases among children are “extremely high and increasing,” according to a report released this week from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association. The weekly number of coronavirus cases among children has increased 50% since the start of December, reaching nearly 200,000 pediatric cases reported last week, according to the report.
Public health officials say they expect coronavirus cases among children to increase after the holidays and into the winter months. And with pediatric vaccination rates dramatically slowing as omicron surges, many are concerned about what the near future will look like – especially for schools.
Complicating matters further, FDA officials now say the omicron variant, which is highly transmissible but so far is not causing severe infections in children, is more difficult to detect with rapid antigen tests, which is what the lion’s share of schools are using to track infections and outbreaks.
Already, dozens of school districts have delayed their return dates and told parents to prepare for virtual learning – some until mid-January.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration is continuing to pressure schools to remain open despite the swell of new infections. Earlier this month, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky endorsed test-to-stay policies and Cardona urged school districts to use federal coronavirus aid to fend off teacher and staff shortages.
“Schools should be approaching Omicron with caution – but NOT fear,” Cardona said this week in a message posted to special media. “Just like we teach in the classroom, we can learn from past experiences, trust the science, and use tools like test-to-stay & vaccination to keep schools safe & open.”