Commentary

Politics or Practice: What shape will post-pandemic education reform take? | Opinion

Undoubtedly, school choice will be a major issue in the 2022 elections in the Keystone State.

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By Janel Myers and Fletcher McClellan

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released guidance highlighting the importance of students returning to the classroom, the ongoing COVID pandemic presents school administrators with the problem of how to structure teaching and learning in the coming school year.

Likewise, parents must consider where their children will be provided the safest and most effective learning environment. These decisions are complicated by interests in student academic, athletic, and social opportunities, as well as impacts on the family.

Compared to other states, Pennsylvania has a fairly high vaccination rate for COVID, but school districts are torn over how strongly to promote vaccination and whether masks should be worn in school.

Currently, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is aligning its advice to school districts with that of the CDC. That said, neither the DoE nor the Department of Health is requiring students, teachers, and staff to receive the coronavirus vaccine at this time.

In response, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh public schools plan to fully open this fall for in-person instruction only, but other districts are delaying their decisions.

At both the school and parent levels, decisions may be affected more by politics than by what will provide the best education.

Throughout the country, politics played a role in how schools responded to the pandemic in 2020-21. School districts in Republican areas were more likely to return to in-person learning in fall 2020 than were school districts in Democratic areas.

In fact, decisions to offer in-person learning were correlated more with support for President Trump and the absence of strong teachers unions than with the frequency or severity of the virus.

The disconnect among politics, education, and coronavirus spread will intensify this fall, as the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, attributed to the Delta variant, is occurring in states with the lowest vaccination rates, which are more likely to be Republican-dominated.

Educationally speaking, the bulk of evidence on student learning during COVID showed in-person instruction was superior to the online learning environment for most students.

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Although online learning allowed teachers to spend less time transitioning between classes and correcting student behavior, many found it was more difficult to engage with students.

Tellingly, student attendance dropped during 2020-21 and parent stress mushroomed, especially among working women.

However, the effects of schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic were complex. Learning varied across age, gender, grade level, geographic location, socioeconomic status, and resources, among other factors.

Research indicated that less exposure to in-person learning was associated with worse student academic performance and negative mental health and behavior. These effects were greater among poorer students and students of color, contributing to enhanced disparities.

Across the nation, low-income families reported the highest rates of children needing to do their schoolwork with a cellphone or through public Wi-Fi because there was no reliable Internet at home.

According to the CDC, racial and ethnic minorities were least likely to receive in-person instruction when the 2020-21 school year ended. The largest racial differences took place in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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Despite the challenges virtual learning brought to teachers and students, online instruction is not new and, when students have the right tools and support, can be as or more effective than in-person instruction.

In addition, online learning options are popular with many parents. During the pandemic, public support for cyber schooling in Pennsylvania boomed, in spite of controversy about the effectiveness of cyber charter schools.

What’s more, many state governments provided greater backing for various kinds of school choice mechanisms, including vouchers, tax credits, and educational savings accounts.

Undoubtedly, school choice will be a major issue in the 2022 elections in the Keystone State.

As the impact of online learning throughout the pandemic becomes clearer, strategies to alleviate effects are at work. In Pennsylvania, students will be permitted to repeat a year due to COVID-19 impacts.

With the help of federal pandemic aid, many Commonwealth schools are conducting summer programs to combat learning loss.

Planned for this fall are mitigation efforts to bring students back in-person full time, including smaller class sizes, staffing adjustments, online tools, parent engagement programs, and upgrades to buildings.

For public schools, these efforts could also be seen as responses to increased competition in the educational marketplace.

All this activity surrounding K-12 education indicates that the pandemic will stimulate school reform.

What remains unknown is what shape education change will assume, and how big a role politics will play.

A graduate of Elizabethown College in Elizabethtown, Pa., Janel Myers is a healthcare consultant. Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College. His work usually appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.

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