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Karolyn Tyson, Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Professor

There has been much debate about what the school closures caused by COVID-19 will mean for students. Many scholars and other commentators are particularly concerned about the consequences for working-class and poor children, who, most noted, would be hardest hit by the shuttered schools. While the pandemic is just the latest event to expose immense social and economic divides in American society, it is also revealing the importance of schools for addressing some of the disparities. Now is a good time to remind ourselves why schools matter and why, even with the challenges the school closures present for delivering instruction evenly to all students, “schooling” must go on. Schools will not be able to engage every child in the same way during this period, but this is no time to abandon formal learning nor to leave families of school-age children to fend for themselves.

It is true that countless studies show that schools exacerbate disparities by family income, race, and education, to name a few factors. But educational institutions also help to reduce the effects of social inequality in our wildly unequal society. American school children come from vastly different backgrounds and, while they do not all receive the same quality education across or even within schools, we know that schools nonetheless make a difference. Studies show, for example, that students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds learn less and fall further behind their more advantaged peers when schools are not in session during the winter and summer breaks, a process that researchers refer to as summer setback or seasonal learning. However, when children are in school, students from both groups make similar gains. As prominent sociologists of education Doris Entwisle and Karl Alexander indicated in their study on summer setback nearly three decades ago, schools matter more for the educational advancement of less advantaged student than they do for more privileged students.

The 2020 school closures due to COVID-19 are sure to lay bare this point once again. The deep inequality in our society means that some children live in relative luxury, with their basic needs and wants met, some who are less privileged still live comfortably, while other children face food and shelter insecurity. Some children live in spacious homes with their own bedroom and study space, access to internet, computers, and adults who can help with schoolwork and technology. Other children have no internet access or computer, no quiet space to study without distractions, and few adults who can assist with homework or technology, due to language or other barriers. Schools may never be able to close all the gaps and level the playing field, as Americans so often tout. Yet for children whose economic disadvantage is acute, schools help pick up some of the slack. For example, many children who face food insecurity rely on schools as one of the few places where they receive two meals a day, Monday through Friday, without fail. With schools closed and millions of American parents out of work, there is real concern that many more children are experiencing hunger.

Yet, even if schools are still able to provide meals for students—as they have been in some cities—equalizing at-home learning is another matter. Many schools across the country have resorted to delivering instruction online in some form, via video chat, online teacher office hours, or online portals where assignments can be accessed and submitted. Some students will be better equipped to adapt to the online learning environment of COVID-19 than others. High-resource parents and guardians will be able to set up quasi-school learning environments for their children at home. They will monitor and supplement their children’s learning activities, ensuring their continued cognitive growth. How much academic ground these children will lose during the school closures is unknown, but it will likely pale in comparison to that lost by the children of low-resource parents. Recognizing the depth of existing disparities and the likelihood that online instruction will be delivered to and accessed by students unevenly, some commentators have asked whether schools should simply give up trying to educate students this calendar year. They wonder if online education will compound the effects of inequality on children’s learning outcomes.

But giving up on educating students altogether would hardly solve the immediate problem of online learning and home-resource inequities. Even if schools provided no instruction during the pandemic, high-resource parents would likely deploy their resources in the interest of their children’s academic success, just as they did before the pandemic. Research showing the disparities in early investments in children between high-income parents on the one hand and middle-class and lower-income parents on the other make this abundantly clear. As educational researcher Sean Reardon pointed out in a 2013 New York Times op-ed, “High-income parents are increasingly focusing their resources – their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school – on their children’s cognitive development and educational success.” Parents with few resources want the same success for their children, but they have less to draw on to provide their children with the tools for school success. They are not likely to match what more advantaged parents can and will do to meet their children’s educational needs and put them ahead. And this is especially true during the current economic crisis when parents in the most precarious financial situations are those most likely to have lost their incomes or jobs or to have to work outside the home, while more financially secure parents are working comfortably from home.

While we know that many children—whether they are in rural areas or poor or low-income households—do not have the tools necessary to effectively engage in online learning as expected at this moment, some do, and they will likely benefit from sustained academic engagement, in whatever form it is delivered. But this is also true for students who do not have access to the tools for online learning, they can still benefit from traditional forms of instructional delivery. For example, schools can provide students with hard copies of assignments and worksheets (which some institutions are already doing). This may not be ideal, but the goal is to keep students engaged in learning in some form. Many children are likely to welcome the continuity in schoolwork and the opportunity to work at a slower pace and without the added pressure of timed tests or an audience of peers. These children will continue to learn. And although their learning may not be to the same extent as their more advantaged peers, this is no reason not to try.

If schools do not provide instruction for any students in any form, far greater numbers of economically disadvantaged students will be deprived of an education and fall even further behind their more advantaged peers during this out-of-school period. While online and other at-home instruction will likely exacerbate already existing inequality, the alternative—no instruction—is sure to create deeper divides. We owe it to our children to continue to work against the forces of inequality and to provide for those who depend on schools most. So, for those who are wondering whether it might not be better to end school completely during the pandemic, just remember that some school is better than no school, and there are things that schools can do to try to accommodate all students’ needs. Students need to know that their teachers have not given up on them, that they still care about their students’ learning, and that they expect students to remain invested as well.

Where do we go from here? What can sociologists and other researchers do? Researchers are already working on assessing which instructional strategies are working well during the school closures and which are not. Many are also working to develop better strategies to deliver online instruction and assessments and to help parents work with children at home. However, if this pandemic does not force us to recommit efforts and funding to reduce the ever-widening wealth and income disparities in this country, none of this research will make much difference in the end.

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