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The 2020 coronavirus pandemic has forced many institutions to close their doors for what will hopefully be short-term global isolation. No matter how long the situation lasts, its impact on society will last for the next several years. In the realm of education, COVID-19’s full impact is unknown. Still, by looking at how educators are handling the present situation, we gain a better understanding of what to expect from education as the immediate health issues begin to subside.

Education in the Short-Term

The education cycle relies upon students in K–12 moving on to college, with some of those students becoming educators themselves. However, due to closures caused by the coronavirus, we are likely to see a substantial impact on higher education enrollment. Doug Lynch of USC’s Rossier School of Education suggests that in the short-term, colleges and other post-secondary education institutions will have to adapt to the shifting expectations of potential students. Some schools have already done this by waiving SAT and ACT scores, while others will turn to explore online education—a more viable option for up-and-coming high school grads.

Still, Doug Lynch says, the cyclical nature of education means that changes in higher ed will come back and impact the next generation of students. Due to in-person practicum cancellations for aspiring teachers, K–12 students soon may experience an even greater shortage of educators. The pipeline may be further diluted as graduating high school seniors may take more non-education college and career paths post-grad, leading to a shortage of educators.

Even on a grade-to-grade level, as students climb the primary and secondary education ranks, school administrators must decide how to keep students moving through the pipeline. Without traditional means of testing and grading, educators rely on workarounds to ensure that students can meet the criteria necessary for moving up a grade. For many schools, this may mean shifting the criteria or loosening the requirements. For others, summer school—either in-person or virtual, depending on the coronavirus situation—will be necessary.

Annual testing cancellations have swept across the country, and those cancellations mean that student achievement will be more difficult to measure. The Center for American Progress reports that those exams are essential for collecting data about performance for specific groups, including ethnic, socioeconomic, and disability subcategories. 

Education in the Long-Term

Annual testing cancellations are not just impacting education in the short-term; without those tests, a long-term understanding of students’ year-to-year performance will be less accurate due to missing data. Additionally, without confidence in their ability to understand and execute critical thinking skills, students may struggle as they move up through the academic system. Studies on Argentina’s reduced rates of student attendance in the 1980s and 1990s suggest that lengthy school closures are detrimental to student success long after they have graduated. The 2019 study determined that “time without school lowered students’ chances of earning a high school diploma or a college degree,” which in turn led to higher unemployment rates for that group.

The growing reliance on technology for education experienced an exponential increase due to COVID-19. Educators turning to resources like Zoom, Canvas, and other collaborative software have found solutions alongside problems. While innovative tech makes it easier than ever for students and teachers to stay connected, as well as school administrators, the digital divide and “homework gap” are widening. 

Pandemics and similar crises are not entirely preventable. Inevitably, another circumstance will lead to widespread school closures. In the long-term, institutions of learning must create contingency plans and teach students how to adapt in the face of uncertainty. Starting small, schools may benefit from new classroom and lecture structures. Public and private institutions may have to partner up to overcome the unique challenges each faces, particularly on the financial side. 

Most importantly, educators and policymakers must address the aforementioned digital divide. Access costs and quality contribute to much of the disparity, as low-income households and families in low Internet-at-home neighborhoods cannot receive the same education as their more affluent peers. Increased funding and accessibility are necessary to overcome these barriers.

As school districts across the country are doing their best to manage this crisis, there is understanding and patience for inefficient responses to ensure students are receiving quality instruction as school remain closed. If, as appears to be inevitable, that schools may close again for health reasons, there will be an increased expectation that K-12 will have more developed plans and preparation to ensure quality teaching and learning continues.