As the COVID-19 pandemic swept through countries across the globe, normal life was suspended in order to resolve the acute healthcare issues from which no one was spared. The pandemic has changed the way people work, live, and learn. Furthermore, with new variants still emerging, the switch to the “new normal” seems to be moving ahead. One of the areas taking the brunt of the crisis is education. As schools closed around the world, teachers, students, and educational staff were left struggling to adapt to the new challenges. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 1.5 billion students in 188 countries were kept out of schools in 2020, while digital assets quickly became a lifeline for education globally.
Ensuring equal access to education is proving vital during the pandemic, as disadvantaged children and students are more vulnerable to learning losses during school closures, and probably even more so during a healthcare crisis. With digital infrastructure and resources now necessary for basic education, ensuring equity for children and students is by no means an easy task. According to the OECD report, 65%–75% of OECD countries implemented instruments designed to track vulnerable student groups not returning to schools. However, even with help available in many countries, disadvantaged children and students still face multiple problems regarding access to education.
Closer to Home
While making education available to all is a goal for most developed countries and economies, Americans, in particular, take pride in the fact that all children and students living in the US have the right to free public education. To find new ways of promoting equity at a time when education has been altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights disclosed in a letter to school superintendents that it would administer a 2021-22 Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). According to the letter, the unprecedented decision to conduct a CRDC two years in a row is a measure of collecting data that will help advance equity and resolve recent and deep-rooted challenges.
There’s no question that CRDC information will ultimately help US policymakers make the best decisions when it comes to supporting schools, educators, and students alike. However, with the country now fighting yet another wave of COVID-19, immediate solutions are also needed. After all, the healthcare crisis has already exposed many inequalities in school systems worldwide, and the American system is no exception. From internet access and computers needed for digital education to support dealing with mental problems and focusing on learning, many inadequacies still plague the system and demand prompt action.
Eliminating Student Loan Debt
One action already taken by the Education Department is granting $5.8 billion of student loan forgiveness to some disabled debtors. The measure is intended to help students who are unable to secure a job due to permanent disabilities. “We serve students, educators, and families across the country to ensure that educational opportunity is available to all. We’ve heard loud and clear from borrowers with disabilities and advocates about the need for this change, and we are excited to follow through on it,” announced Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently. However, student loan cancellation doesn’t apply to all American students. Still, it is intended to help particular groups—students with total and permanent disabilities and students who can prove they were defrauded by their college or university. Recent data shows that, while there are 45 million student loan borrowers in the US, just 500,000 borrowers have had their loans canceled.
Partially eliminating student loan debt is not the only proposal made by the Biden administration to provide American students with equal access to education. The student loan payment pause was also extended one last time until January 31, 2022, in an effort to grant students and borrowers more time to earn and repay the necessary amounts. Considering the fact that loans have been frozen since the beginning of 2020, the news may be even more beneficial to those who work in the public sector and could become eligible for loan forgiveness in the future.
Collecting data from schools and universities and taking the best steps to ensure that all students can pay or handle their loans are two of the measures needed to ensure equal access to education. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still far from over as new variants continue to appear, education may be heading toward new challenges. These new issues are most likely to add to the existing inequalities and ultimately exacerbate them. That is why prompt action is still needed when it comes to eliminating pre-existing systemic inequalities in education.