Of all the facets of life that have changed as a result of the pandemic, education has arguably seen the most disruption over the past year.
Kindergarten through 12th grade students—nearly all accustomed to in-person learning—suddenly found themselves staring into a computer screen, attending class online multiple hours a day while teachers did their best to quickly figure out the best way to engage them in a virtual environment.
And the cascading effect it’s had on families has been vast. Many mothers, who statistically have taken on the brunt of suddenly having kids at home 24/7, found themselves leaving the workforce in droves in order to attend to their children’s educational needs or to watch daycare-age children. According to a recent analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, nearly 2.2 million women left the labor force between February 2020 and October 2020. Although not all of those women were mothers, and there are myriad reasons why women have left during the pandemic, the statistic is illustrative of a women’s workforce in crisis.
As for learning, at least at the start, the consensus was that learning in an online environment—against the backdrop of a national public health crisis—was a struggle to say the least.
Last spring [at the start of the pandemic], teachers had to throttle back the academics because of the dire nature of the catastrophe,” says Bryan Alexander, an education futurist based in Manassas, senior scholar at Georgetown University and the author of Academia Next. “It’s hard to ask kids to focus on their precalculus when their grandfather has just died or their parent has just lost a job.”
There are approximately 420,000 students enrolled in K-12 public schools across Northern Virginia. On March 23, 2020, Gov. Ralph Northam ordered all schools closed. Since that order, school districts are now allowed to open as they see fit, and school boards in the region are working toward getting students back in school buildings. With health and safety mitigation efforts instituted with guidance from the CDC, schools rate “low” in terms of infection risk.
“Students and parents and teachers are not able to effectively teach online, usually because they’re just new to it.”
But there have been stops and starts to getting school buildings open. For example, a Fairfax County School Board meeting on Jan. 6, 2021, resulted in putting plans to reopen schools on pause for at least a month amid concern over rising cases. On Feb. 2, FCPS announced that all students would have the opportunity to return to in-person school two days a week starting Feb. 16 and that they would add more groups of students by educational priority through March 16.
But to keep those plans in place, what it comes down to, said Scott Brabrand, Fairfax County Public Schools superintendent, is—like everywhere else—vaccines.
“I am working with the county executive as we speak about the vaccination,” he said during the public meeting back in January. “We know that is a game-changer in back to school and lowering anxiety of our staff to return.”
As of Feb. 2, 90 percent of FCPS teachers had requested or scheduled appointments for the first dose of the vaccine, and the school system was working to ensure prompt access to the shots.
Similar scenarios are playing out across Northern Virginia as Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties and the City of Alexandria also work to get students and teachers back in the classroom.
And even though now, about a year into virtual learning, teachers and students are more used to the new model, it simply can’t replace in-person school.
“The overall impact has been a lower quality of education,” Alexander says. “Students and parents and teachers are not able to effectively teach online, usually because they’re just new to it.”
But navigating the online learning space, says Alexander, should get easier. And one silver lining of the need for quick adaptation, he says, is the focus on the digital divide, which highlights that many students simply didn’t have the (often expensive) tools needed to make online learning effective.
Many school districts distributed laptops and helped students get access to Wi-Fi during the pandemic.
“We’ve paid attention to the digital divide like we’ve never done before,” he says. “We haven’t solved it, but we’re trying hard.”
After the Pandemic
- What will change: Hybrid models of digital and in-person schooling may remain an option for some students; digital learning tools are likely here to stay.
- What will return to normal: The priority is to get students back into school buildings with students able to participate in all facets of the school community, including sports and other after-school activities.