In the wake of Omicron – Education Next
Like this number Education Next in press, the national spike in Covid-19 cases caused primarily by the Omicron variant has begun to subside. In Massachusetts and other northeastern states, where Omicron first entered the United States, the total number of cases and cases among students and school staff fell precipitously. Yes, hospitalization rates remain high, and in many places hospitals are dangerously close to capacity. This pandemic has too often defied expectations to allow confident assertions about its future. It seems possible, however, that we are entering a new stage in the way school systems are responding to the pandemic – a stage which, with the 2022 midterm elections looming, will lead to a gradual easing of restrictions, even in the most vigilant countries. states.
Although we may have reached a turning point in the impact of the pandemic on education, the latest peak in the disease has already caused a new wave of disruption. As Omicron grew, the Chicago Teachers Union once again demonstrated who runs public schools in the nation’s third-largest city by forcing a four-day closure over objections from the city’s mayor and school principal. city. Nationally, tracking service Burbio reported that in the first three weeks of January, more than 5,700 K-12 schools closed or went virtual each week, on average. But those closures differed from those that kept many schools totally remote throughout the 2020-2021 school year. The 2022 closures were driven primarily by staff shortages rather than false hopes of containing the spread of the virus. A growing number of jurisdictions are now reducing or halting contact tracing in schools, noting the low number of positive cases identified by these efforts and the burden they place on school personnel.
Unlike many other viral illnesses, Covid-19 spares most children the worst physical harm. Yet our collective inability to adapt to this reality has forced children to suffer serious damage to their learning. The growing body of data on students’ academic progress makes this clear. Spring 2021 state test results revealed a massive setback in student literacy and numeracy development. High school graduation rates, after rising steadily for more than a decade, have fallen sharply in 2021 despite an easing of credential requirements. The non-academic development of students has also suffered. The American Academy of Pediatrics has gone so far as to declare a national emergency in the area of children’s mental health.
As school systems struggled to respond to the pandemic over the past two years, some families have taken matters into their own hands. In this issue, Daniel Hamlin and Education Next editor Paul E. Peterson provides an update on recent developments in the world of homeschooling (see “Homeschooling Has Soared During the Pandemic, But What Does the Future Hold?” characteristics, this problem). Hamlin and Peterson note that “even conservative estimates point to a doubling of practice during the pandemic,” with up to 6% of U.S. children learning at home without simultaneously being enrolled in public or private school, as of June 2021. Ways for students to be homeschooled are also changing, the authors note, with more families piecing together a mix of online experiences, participation in informal co-ops, and perhaps a class or two at a formal school for complete their child’s education.
This growth in homeschooling has been accompanied – and in some cases aided – by an expansion of policies promoting parental choice. At least 18 states created or expanded private school choice programs amid the pandemic in 2021 (see “School Choice Advances in the States,” characteristics, Fall 2021). Republican leaders in other states are now looking to increase that number. Texas Governor Greg Abbott said that “this next session. . . you’re going to see a stronger, faster, and more powerful school choice movement than you’ve ever seen in the history of the state of Texas. Glenn Youngkin, the newly elected governor of Virginia, has proposed increasing the number of charter schools in the Commonwealth from less than 10 to around 200.
A pandemic that is claiming the lives of over five million people worldwide, robbing millions of others of the joy of social interaction and disrupting education for months on end has no silver lining. If, however, the response to Covid-19 leads policymakers to offer families more options to meet the needs of students, this change will be part of its legacy that we must all make the most of as we seek to repair the damage of the pandemic to the children of our country and to truly build back better.
Martin R. West