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Education Must Be Part Of Our Coronavirus Response

Our guest author today is Stanley Litow, Professor at Duke and Columbia Universities, where he teaches about the role of corporations in society, and the author of The Challenge for Business and Society: From Risk to Reward. He formerly led Corporate Social Responsibility at IBM, where he was twice selected as CEO of the Year by Corporate Responsibility Magazine.

Americans are doing their best to cope with coronavirus and the disruption and healthcare emergency it has caused in all of our lives. We are in the midst of a crisis we have not experienced over many generations. The impact on our economy will be cataclysmic, affecting all Americans in all states and territories. Millions of jobs are at risk, along with savings and retirements. But as horrific as this event is (and it is clearly not over), a coordinated response and massive spending from local, state, and federal governments can help to mitigate the disaster and speed recovery. Whether it takes months or years, we will experience a recovery. And while the economic disruption will last for a very long time, the educational disruption is likely to last much longer. A generation of America's children have seen their educations thrown into chaos and we will need a response equal to, and perhaps greater than, what our governments are now doing.

With little time for preparation or planning, just months before the end of the school year, schools across the nation were abruptly forced to close. While some parents are attempting to continue their children's learning opportunities at home, the vast majority of American children are receiving little to no educational support. School districts across the nation have also started to deliver some hastily produced classes online, but families at the bottom of the economic system often have no access to technology or internet access, making the challenge almost impossible. In addition, most other educational entities have been closed: public libraries, museums, after-school programs, and not-for-profit social services agencies, etc., leaving impoverished families with few viable options, even for public access to online schooling. 

When our schools reopen, as they ultimately will, and the economic and health crises have begun to improve, our schools will still need a focused, sustained, and elevated national response, and it must have the support of all Americans and every segment of society. The 2020-21 school year will be a test for our nation.

Beginning immediately, we must act to approve needed governmental expenditures, which can help to support and re-engineer our public education systems. Even before schools are reopened, schools and especially our teachers will need the time to retool, including high quality professional development that will allow teachers to respond to emergent student needs. Planning for this cannot wait until schools reopen. Such efforts need to be designed now to be delivered, not just in one day or one week, but to teachers during summer break and throughout the new school year. 

Once schools are reopened, students need to be evaluated to determine their level of learning loss, with plans developed to address any gaps. Extended day options, which will be essential to provide students with the academics and social services they need, should be integrated into the school day, and not only via traditional after-school programs. Planning for such efforts needs to begin now. High school students will need a particular focus on college readiness, perhaps delivered through extended day and weekend programming. And traditional (and usually optional and scarce) summer school programs will also need to be rethought, ensuring that we can deliver a focused set of offerings and supports to the large numbers of students who need them. The technology that’s needed, for students and our teachers, needs to be designed and delivered now; this is not only about connectivity and devices, it‘s also about high-quality content and the supports that students, teachers, and parents need to make sure it produces high quality learning. We can also expect to see a spike in the number of students who will have special needs, exacerbated by the health and economic crises. This will also put the spotlight on teacher training and support.

This crisis also requires a response that goes beyond elementary and secondary education. Our public higher education system needs to focus on the affordability issue, but it can't stop there. As a result of the educational disruption of higher education courses, far too many students will be at risk of dropping out if they are not provided with the supports they need to succeed. And that doesn't begin and end with academics and economics. It includes mental health, guidance, and a range of students as well. 

The clear message is this: we need to prepare for a redesign of public education, at all levels, for the next school year, and we must invest in it, and begin now. The clock is ticking. 

Just like our economic and healthcare responses, we can’t expect that the educational toll of the coronavirus can be realistically supported with state and local funding alone. Though localities will need to step up too, what we need is an all hands on deck, extensive and equitable federal funding response, and we can't wait much longer to begin. As our elected officials continue their efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic, let’s ensure that education remains high on their agenda.

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