About the Author: Madeline Bergstrom is a first year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Madeline graduated from Arizona State University and hopes to work in public interest or administrative law after graduating law school.
Many students across the nation remember March 13th, 2020, which for many students was the last day of “normalcy”. Most schools, from pre-K to higher education, decided to switch to virtual learning, at first for two weeks, then for a month, and eventually for the remainder of the spring semester.
Seven months later, the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the everyday life of Americans, and school districts and higher education institutions are still creating ever-changing plans on how to conduct learning in the pandemic. Schools across the country vary by how they are offering instruction this year; whether it be completely virtual, primarily in person, or in hybrid form, mixing virtual and in-person options.
At universities and colleges, about 65% are offering completely virtual or hybrid options for the Fall 2020 semester.1 For K-12 institutions, four states have required schools to be open.2 Seven states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are requiring schools to be partially or completely closed until the areas are at certain re-opening stages.3 The remainder of states are leaving the decision to individual school districts, but encouraging or recommending decisions based on the reopening plans of the state.4
Most of the state legislation passed this year to assist K-12 and higher education institutions with the complications of COVID-19 was passed in the spring, soon after the initial shift to virtual learning.5 However, these policies were not predicting the long-term effect the pandemic would have on education, and fewer than fifteen states have passed additional COVID-19 education legislation since the end of the spring semester.6
In addition to the quick adaptation to virtual teaching, the pandemic has created challenges for many of the other resources that schools provide for students: access to internet and technology, meals and transportation, and a learning environment. The challenges to provide these resources in the pandemic has disproportionately affected students and families of color, and those from lower income areas or households, revealing the need for lawmakers to address how to provide access and resources for students.7, 8 Some states have passed legislation setting aside additional appropriations or amending schools codes to take into account class requirements, but have failed to pass statewide legislation to directly assist schools. The lack of policy and legislation providing resources for education during the pandemic has forced cities and individual districts to work independently to provide students with the resources needed.
While digital learning allows students to stay home while continuing to take classes, not every student has access to the individual devices and reliable internet service needed to facilitate completion of assignments and ensure consistent class attendance. The Chicago Public School system is one of many school districts across the country that has decided to hold all classes online this fall, but an estimated 100,000 students in the Chicago Public School system do not have access to high-speed internet.9 To ensure student success, the City of Chicago launched an initiative to provide free internet to students who did not have it, as virtual classes and online assignments rely on extended periods of access to the internet.10 Yet, being able to access online school requires more than just internet access, and students need a device to use online platforms to complete schoolwork and attend virtual classes. There has not been much legislation to provide devices to students to complete schoolwork on, and many are relying on cell phones, or are just simply not able to complete work.11 New York City also instructed most schools to conduct virtual classes this semester, and the NYC Education Department is providing iPads to students who do not have access to devices.12 However, the need was higher than expected, and some students were not able to obtain a device until after the school year started, while some students are still without a device, more than halfway through the semester.13 These examples, from two of the largest cities in the nation, illustrate the fact that school districts and students across the nation need and deserve more assistance and support from lawmakers.
As we enter the Fall and Winter months and coronavirus cases are approaching another peaks, there is growing urgency to address the needs of students and educators, whether conducting classes in-person or virtually.14 COVID-19 has created endless challenges for students, families, and educators, and the need for more state and federal legislation to help provide resources and support is ever-growing, as the pandemic continues to create long-term challenges. Students and families are having to possibly risk their health because of a lack of resources for distanced and virtual learning, and the urgent need for prompt action by state and federal policymakers becomes more essential every day.
1 Jacquelyn Elias, et al., Here’s Our List of College Reopening Models, The Chronicle of Higher Education (Oct. 1, 2020, 2:04 PM), https://www.chronicle.com/article/heres-a-list-of-colleges-plans-for-reopening-in-the-fall/.
2 Map: Where Are Schools Closed?, Education Week (Oct. 23, 2020), https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/map-covid-19-schools-open-closed.html.
5 COVID-19: Education Bill Tracking Database, National Conference of State Legislatures, (October 8, 2020), https://www.ncsl.org/research/education/covid-19-education-bill-tracking-database.aspx.
7 Claus von Zastrow, Data You Can Use: How Much Virtual Schooling Happened During the Pandemic?, EdNote (July 6, 2020), https://ednote.ecs.org/data-you-can-use-how-much-virtual-schooling-happened-during-the-pandemic/.
8 Paloma Esquivel et al., A Generation Left Behind? Online Learning Cheats Poor Students, Times Survey Finds, Los Angeles Times (Aug. 13, 2020, 5:00 AM), https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-08-13/online-learning-fails-low-income-students-covid-19-left-behind-project.
9 Mayor’s Press Office, Chicago Launches Groundbreaking Initiative to Bridge Digital Divide, Providing Free High-Speed Internet Access to Over 100,000 CPS Students, Office of the Mayor (June 25, 2020), https://www.chicago.gov/city/en/depts/mayor/press_room/press_releases/2020/june/CPSInternetAccess.html.
11 Emily A. Vogels et al., 53% of American Say the Internet Has Been Essential During the COVID-19 Outbreak, Pew Research Center (April 30, 2020), https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2020/04/30/53-of-americans-say-the-internet-has-been-essential-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/.
12 Reema Amin, Many NYC Students Still Waiting for Devices to Get Online as Remote Learning Ramps Up, The City (Sept. 22 2020, 9:24 PM), https://www.thecity.nyc/2020/9/22/21451878/nyc-school-students-ipads-online-remote-learning-carranza.
14 United States COVID-19 Cases and Deaths by State, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Nov. 1, 2020, 12:24 PM), https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesinlast7days.