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Reopening Schools and Closing Opportunity Gaps

April 19, 2021


The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly changed the way we live, work and spend our free time, and one of the areas that shouldered the heaviest blows during this crisis is, without a doubt, education. With online and hybrid learning changing normal courses everywhere, students, educators, and staff were quickly forced to adapt to the new digital environment. The pandemic and the education crisis that followed widened existing inequities, pushing some students further and further away from reaching their educational goals. Reopening schools is one of the first steps to be taken in our return to normal, but it is equally important to do it right.

The U.S. Department of Education has recently released a guideline about safely reopening America’s schools while meeting all the needs of students. The document, titled ‘COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs’, emphasizes the need of meeting not only basic needs, but also the social, emotional, and mental health needs of U.S. students. Furthermore, the document recognizes the disruptive nature of the COVID-19 pandemic for students and their families, but also for educators and school staff. The solutions proposed by the U.S. Department of Education are believed to provide students with access to safe and inclusive educational settings.

Girls’ Education

The COVID-19 pandemic is thought to represent a worldwide threat when it comes to girls’ education. School closures across the world have been known to prevent girls and women from accessing courses and going back to school on their own terms. According to the World Bank, immediate efforts are needed to guarantee that girls and women everywhere can safely resume their schooling. Without action, the pandemic and the following educational crisis ultimately increases the risks of girls giving up school for good. This, in turn, comes with many other risks.

Girls are believed to be more vulnerable to domestic and gender-based violence, and also more easily forced into underage marriages and early pregnancies. With fewer possibilities of resuming education, girls are also at risk of being exploited as child labor or simply underpaid workers. Just one more year of schooling can increase a girl’s earnings by up to 20%, once she reaches adulthood. It comes as no surprise, then, that UNESCO thinks that “girls’ education is one of the most powerful investments we can make for our collective future.”

The Challenges at Home

While girls’ education is an important concern especially during the COVID-19 crisis, the impact of the pandemic goes on well beyond gender inequalities. According to the ‘COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs’, the pandemic has had a unique impact on underserved and vulnerable American students. Among them are students from poverty-stricken backgrounds, students of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, English learners, students with disabilities, migratory and rural students, indigenous American students, students in out-of-home care and correctional facilities, and students having no home. The document offers a three-step framework to help all students return to school safely.

The strategy is meant to provide equitable and adequate education opportunities for students, educators, and staff, and help them navigate their way out of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first two steps are specially designed for students, and they include measures for creating a safe and healthy learning environment, while addressing lost instructional time. A special chapter is dedicated to overcoming resource inequities and inequalities and providing a well-rounded education. The last step is especially designed for educators and staff, after more than a third of American teachers have admitted they considered changing jobs as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Turning Plans into Action

While strategy is of the outermost importance, it is action that ultimately provides students, teachers and staff with a safe and inclusive learning environment beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Action means not only understanding the recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Education but also carefully implementing them in American schools. Students, educators and staff should not be left alone to fight the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Policymakers, unions, families, and the entire school community should also work together on developing the best solutions and implementing them on a step-by-step basis. 

According to the United Nations, “the COVID-19 pandemic has created the largest disruption of education systems in history, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries and all continents.” Closing schools around the world not only means sacrificing education and stability today, but also sacrificing a better future. In order to rebuild it, communities in America and across the world may need to recognize the best principles and conduct multiple reforms. President Joe Biden has often said Americans need to “build back better,” and 2021 may be the best year to start doing just that, beginning with education.