How COVID-19 has shaped the future of education

·4 min read

Finally, it seems we have turned a corner with the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. More than 150 million Americans have been fully vaccinated. That's more than 45% of the population, with another 8% that have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coronavirus vaccinations in the U.S.

*Includes those not yet eligible for the vaccine. <p>*Figures include the U.S. territories and three countries with <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:special agreements" class="link ">special agreements</a>.</p> <p>Source: <a href="" rel="nofollow noopener" target="_blank" data-ylk="slk:Centers for Disease Control and Prevention" class="link ">Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a></p>
*Includes those not yet eligible for the vaccine.

*Figures include the U.S. territories and three countries with special agreements.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Experts estimate that 70-90% of the total population needs to acquire resistance to the virus to reach a "total blanket of protection" known as herd immunity, when the spread of the virus substantially slows because enough individuals have either been infected or vaccinated.

[ Related: What are the possibilities for how herd immunity could play out? ]

The push to get students back to school

In the meantime, states and school districts have begun pushing for students to return to the classroom this fall, citing concerns over kids' educational and social development without regular in-person interactions.

While most U.S. states are dealing with a wide array of approaches to kicking off the 2021-22 school year, most of the country's schools and day cares are preparing to reopen for in-person instruction and care.

[ Related: Expert: Not reaching herd immunity by the fall could have dire consequences ]

As of June 8, at least nine states had already mandated full-time, in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year, and at least 14 states required in-person instruction to be available for all or some grade levels either full- or part-time.

Where schools are reopening in the U.S.

But even as schools reopen, many families have opted to keep students at home for distance learning. A large number of schools around the country are planning to institute a partial online "hybrid" teaching format in the fall, wanting to keep remote learning as an option for those who want it, and acknowledging that cases of COVID-19 could surge again down the road.

[ Related: Why COVID-19 testing in schools will be key this fall ]

Some states say they'll restrict remote learning in the fall. Illinois plans to limit online learning to students who are not eligible for a vaccine and are under quarantine orders. New Jersey will no longer give parents the option of sending their children to school virtually. In Massachusetts, families will be able to opt for remote classes only in limited circumstances. In Connecticut, schools won't be required to offer virtual learning.

The big cost of learning online

Student attendance during the 2020-21 school year plummeted nationwide, with many teachers saying their pupils appeared disengaged upon returning to virtual learning, turning off their laptop cameras so they couldn't be seen or leaving homework unfinished.

Not surprisingly, the number of students earning below-average grades or failing also soared during the pandemic.

"The failure is alarming and concerning," said Mary McComas, Baltimore County's chief academic officer, adding that many of the failures are the result of students having trouble staying organized at home. "Their whole learning world is different."

The 'homework gap'

The "homework gap" — the gap between students who have home access to affordable high-speed internet for educational purposes and those who don't — has been a massive challenge for educators across the country, with many teachers themselves also being impacted.

When schools closed in March 2020, around 16 million K-12 students lacked access to a working device, broadband service or both. These students — many of whom come from low-income households and communities of color — have, on average, GPAs that are 0.4 points lower than their peers with access, according to an analysis by Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group and the Southern Education Foundation.

"This leaves children locked out of an education," said Katie Schmuecker, head of policy at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

[ Related: The digital divide has caused an educational crisis ]

Several million more students have access to the internet today than in March 2020, thanks to efforts by states, local municipalities and broadband service providers. But there's still much work to be done, with advocates warning that the "homework gap" is likely to persist even after students return to classrooms.

President Joe Biden in April called for $100 billion over eight years to build a high-speed broadband infrastructure en route to achieving 100% coverage across the nation, but Senate Republicans have since persuaded him to shrink the plan's price tag to $65 billion. Will it be enough to close education's digital divide?

By Jackie Nash