Equality and Fairness for Some: Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The challenges, changes, and unexpected benefits to elementary education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.


By Maia Decker | maia.decker@yale.edu

For most of America’s youth, elementary education is their first introduction to a community outside their familial structures. In Spring of 2020, as the nation locked down in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the majority of schools transitioned from in-person to fully online learning. As these schools moved to digital platforms, their ability to provide equitable access to education, community, and other benefits reduced dramatically. The effects of difficulties faced by educators, students, and districts may continue to affect students in the upcoming year.

With most households confined to their homes, adult family members took unprecedented responsibility for their younger relatives’ education. Although homeschooling is far from a new phenomenon as nation-wide lockdowns pushed elementary education into the virtual classroom, the rates of homeschooled students more than tripled by Fall of 2020. For wealthier families, a common practice became the establishment of “pods” for their children: small, private educational groups that study under either parents or hired educators. However, educating their children in pods is unachievable for many families; access to a pod often requires the financial means to pay for outside education, or the financial freedom to take time off from work to teach. In already under-resourced school districts, families that pull their students out of public schools can negatively impact district’s funding either through decreased PTA engagement or direct “by head” government assistance.

For the students that remained enrolled in more traditional schools, the likelihood of attending school virtually varied. According to Vikki Katz, author of the report Learning at Home While Under-connected, the likelihood of virtual school changed based on race/ethnicity, but not between locations or poverty levels. When many schools first transitioned to online learning, lower-income parents reported being more than three times more concerned about their children falling behind compared to their wealthier counterparts. Less than half of parents reported that their children were receiving “a lot” of interaction with teachers in the first few months of virtual school.

Mordechai Levy-Eichel, historian and lecturer for the Yale Political Science Department, has studied education as an academic and is a parent himself. “What I sort of immediately thought was, we're totally unprepared for this,” said Levy-Eichel on hearing the news that schools would transition to online learning. In his research on education, Levy-Eichel has found that educational enterprises tend to be “inertial:” educators and educational institutions have immense difficulties adapting to change of any sort. The lack of direct engagement from teachers in the pandemic’s early months aligns with Levy-Eichel’s analysis: districts were unprepared for the transition to online learning.

According to Levy-Eichel, the transition to virtual schooling presented the opportunity for innovation in an otherwise very conservative field. However, due to the inertial state of education and the collective suffering under the pandemic, very few innovations occurred. For students, this meant that those who were under-served by the pre-pandemic education system suffered even more intensely in virtual schooling. According to Jane Karr, Journalism Lecturer at Yale and former editor for the Education section of the New York Times, many of the “least privileged” families lacked good internet access while a great deal of schools in low-income areas were unable to provide the same quality of education as their wealthier counterparts.

“The numbers of students lost by the system altogether is stunning,” said Karr.

Bellwether Education Partners, a national nonprofit focused on assisting underserved children through education, estimated that three million of the “most educationally marginalized students in the country” have been missing from classrooms since March of 2020. Karr noted that beyond the purely educational aspect of elementary schools, many communities rely on educational institutions for quality meals, physical education, and assistance in helping young people learn to socialize and be a part of a community.

“We expect a lot from our schools,” Karr said. For the over three million students missing from classrooms, they are unable to receive the support previously given by their schools.

Despite the large expectation many have for educators and their institutions, a great number of the individuals responsible for American education did not receive the training necessary to launch into a fully digital classroom. “What struck me was how little energy teachers unions and schools put into training their staff in online instruction,” Karr said. Even for those still attending school virtually, by the Fall of 2020 students coming from lower-income households were more than four times more likely to experience one of three “digital obstacles” preventing their education compared to their upper-income counterparts. According to data from the Pew Research Center in September of 2020, these digital obstacles included: having to do schoolwork with a cellphone, having to use public wifi to finish schoolwork due to lack of reliable home internet access, and not being able to complete schoolwork due to lack of a home computer. Of the parents who anticipated that their children may face one of these obstacles, 92% were in favor of schools providing broadband access for students. Comparatively, 52% of all Americans were in favor of government support for internet access.

For some schools, such as Rattlesnake Elementary in Missoula, Montana, laptops and hotspots were distributed to families in need along with community options for affordable internet access. Pam Wright, principal of Rattlesnake Elementary reported that the pandemic was a major disruption to “the way we’ve always done things.” Educators were forced to do more with less time and reaching students became easier once the school moved to a hybrid model in the fall of 2020. Wright noted that many parents became more involved in their student’s education during the original lockdown, while others were too overwhelmed with other stressors: equity problems with parent’s ability to engage with their children’s education were exacerbated by the pandemic. This fall, Wright commented that the school will be focusing on “Acceleration rather than Remediation;” some students have certainly fallen behind and rather than risk increased learning gaps, the school will continue to provide “high-quality grade level curriculum,” emphasizing on any missing skills required to meet grade level standards.

For households in which one or more parents were considered “essential workers,” a full lockdown was impossible. Many child-care centers remained open for these children while their parents were working on the frontlines of industries essential to ensure the continuity of America’s infrastructure. In New York City, a hot-spot for virus transmission, the YMCA reported caring for over 40,000 children during the lockdown with almost no recorded cases of transmission at their centers.

For privileged families locked-down together, guardians engaged more with all aspects of their students’ education. Levy-Eichel noted that formal education is often less influential than familial environment when it comes to determining children’s future. Melinda Wenner Moyer, science journalist and author of a science-based book on raising children, has two children under the age of ten. Moyer said that during the pandemic, she and her husband were able to ask their children regular questions about their independent, outdoor-based school. In addition, their family had dinner together where they would talk about “evolution, about geography, about microbiology.” Moyer said that they had, “more opportunities than usual” to engage with their children in “meaningful dialogue” about the world. This beneficial dialogue was not possible for all families, especially those who were placed under additional stressors by the pandemic. New America, an American think tank and civic innovation platform, found that students — especially those who were less economically advantaged — were more likely to turn to educational media during the pandemic. Likewise, families under the poverty line reported a greater difficulty finding print books to read with their children while in lockdown.

Although higher education is a voluntary experience, college students reported many difficulties with online school including: disengagement with school, troubles forming relationships and self-motivating, and family responsibilities pulling them away from school. At Yale, over half of the undergraduate population was enrolled virtually while most courses were held entirely online. Although Yale’s undergraduate population participated in online education like much of the nation’s students, the university’s financial resources allowed for portions of the student population to remain on-campus while being tested weekly. This experience was not universal across the country and many higher-education institutions were forced to close after campus-wide outbreaks.

The pandemic has even altered admissions to colleges and universities. Many universities announced their decision to change to a test-optional system. Over 300 deans of college admission released a public statement emphasizing the importance of self-care, academic work, and service and family contributions. In the open letter, the deans noted that applying students will not be disadvantaged due to changes to extracurricular or summer activities, hopefully making the admissions process more equitable.

These changes may mean more equitable admissions to institutions of higher education. Furthermore, large-scale online education during the pandemic has provided tangible evidence of the feasibility of virtual learning. For those who are unable to attend in-person school, this period of educational history may help future administrations cater to students who require more nontraditional means of learning. Although it is difficult to diagnose the pandemic’s long-term effects on education, recent lockdowns and the resulting shifts in education have exacerbated inequality in American education to unprecedented levels. Educational inequality remains a massive issue in the United States that ought to be combated whenever and wherever possible.


Writer’s Reflection:

During the pandemic, my parents each faced their own challenges: my mother as a nurse and my father as a first grade teacher. In hearing the difficulties he faced as an educator and a community member, I wanted to further research the ways that COVID-19 has affected elementary education and the students that rely on quality education. In studying this topic, the long term effects of online learning are hard to predict. As Levy-Eichel said, it is difficult to give an “autopsy.” The immediacy and ongoing nature of the pandemic made charting effects difficult. However, I hope that the lessons learned from this period will inform administrations in the future in order to better educate and assist American students.