The U.S. education system is in crisis. Now’s the time to reinvent it

The problem of how to educate the country’s more than 73 million children during the pandemic has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make schools more equitable. Will we seize it?

By Julia Herbst & Katherine Schwab | Fast Company

On August 17, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina was supposed to have its first day of all-remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year. Except the virtual platform that was designed to facilitate all lessons for the district’s nearly 150,000students crashed.

On August 20, New York University issued an apology after out-of-state students, whom the school pledged to feed for 14 days as they quarantined, shared on TikTok that they were receiving rotten food—and sometimes no food at all.

On August 25, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that parents at the Florida county’s Pine View School have raised more than $70,000to outfit their children’s classrooms with air purifiers, even as less wealthy schools remain stuck in outdated, unventilated buildings.

These are just a handful of the overwhelming number of stories coming out of our nation’s schools as the new school year kicks off. They paint a portrait of local districts and universities in disarray as they try to navigate reopening schools amid a global pandemic that has already claimed the lives of over 182,000 Americans. Some schools that have opened already have faced rising cases and been forced to move to remote learning; others are trying to implement a hybrid learning schedule where students come in only a few days a week. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis mandated that all schools reopen their brick-and-mortar buildings. The state then saw 9,000 new coronavirus cases for kids younger than 18 from August 9 to August 25. A judge issued a temporary injunction on the governor’s order last week. The New York City public school system, the largest in the country, is targeted to open on September 10, though some doubt it will. Perhaps the best word to describe this moment is chaos.

But amid a deadly pandemic and historic recession, we have an opportunity to reinvent the way we think about education, working parents, and what we want society to look like. The stories in our new Reinventing Education package highlight the ongoing efforts to bring kids back to school safely, educate them remotely, and help their parents manage a new second shift.

These stories reflect a sobering reality: The pandemic is exacerbating the deep, underlying inequalities of the United States education system. Which schools can open and stay virus-free remains tied to how many resources the school and its local public health system have. As wealthy parents hire private teachers and form pods with other well-off families, poor parents are left to the mercy of public schools’ decisions; many do not have the technologynor the internet connection necessary to help their kids access the remote learning options that are quickly becoming inevitable.

Even for those with laptops and the broadband necessary for daily Zoom calls, remote education poses problems for children of all ages. It can also be less than ideal for kids with disabilities. For the youngest in particular, sitting in front of a computer isn’t practical, since they’re missing out on the most important piece of early childhood education: learning how to socialize with peers. “The socialization part of schools is huge,” George Rutherford, a pediatrician, epidemiologist, and professor of public health at the University of California, San Francisco, tells Fast Company. “Any is better than none.”

While older kids are more equipped to sit in front of a screen, they still miss out on the other elements of school, such as friends and extracurricular activities. This perhaps explains why Fast Company’sexclusive Harris Poll shows that parents are just as concerned about their kids’ mental health as they are about their physical health heading into the school year.

Silicon Valley has long proposed digitally enabled learning as a potential solution to opportunity gaps because it can be scaled up quickly and smartly personalized to individual students. But this mystical promise for the internet to transform education has not yet materialized during the pandemic. Many of the most prominent remote education tools that teachers are relying on, such as Zoom and Google Classroom, weren’t designed for remote learning at all. They lack basic functionality that could make them more effective tools, and they provide little helpful guidance for teachers.

But today’s education crisis isn’t just about kids, of course. The pandemic has also transformed the lives of parents and educators. Teachers have had to figure out how to adapt lesson plans and become fluent in new technologies, virtually overnight. They’ve helped troubleshoot IT problems, tracked down students who had stopped showing up to online classes, and supported kids grieving the loss of a parent due to COVID-19. In school districts planning for an in-person semester, teachers are collecting donations of PPE, and risking their lives to reenter the classroom. “My brain is spinning in terms of, is there a way I can retire early?” one public school teacher in Minnesota tells Fast Company. “It’s really scary to go back.”

And though much has been written about the challenges working parents face during the crisis—and especially working moms—there are few satisfactory childcare solutions. With schools and daycare centers closed, or only serving a limited number of children, many parents are juggling full-time jobs (either remote or in-person), while also trying to keep kids engaged with virtual learning (or simply from bouncing off the walls).

The childcare industry received a mere $3.5 billion from the federal CARES Act, and, while certain states are trying unconventional solutions such as paying childcare providers’ salaries or covering daycare tuition fees, most parents are left to their own devices. The resulting frustration is reflected in the findings of Fast Company‘s exclusive Harris poll: More than half of those surveyed (57%) say they wish schools would just cancel the fall semester altogether and open fully in the spring.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, dads who were surveyed expressed a far more optimistic outlook on the upcoming school year than moms: While fathers indicated that their most common emotion about the year ahead was hope, moms said it was uncertainty. That disparity may be due to the fact that working mothers are reportedly cutting back on their work hours due to extra caregiving needs at rates four to five times higher than working fathers. This unequal distribution of labor in heterosexual relationships means there’s a real risk of turning back the hard-fought gains that women have made in the workforce.

But despite the incredibly steep challenges faced by parents, educators, and students, there are stories of success and inventive workarounds. Creative teachers are turning to new technologies—or old ones—to help kids stay engaged. Some schools, which have always done more than just educate students, are picking up the slack: helping kids get laptops and medication, making sure they have art supplies and enough to eat when their parents have been laid off.

Some companies, recognizing the importance of parents in the workplace, are increasing subsidies to help employees access childcare or allowing overwhelmed parents to take paid leave. Others are advocating for more substantial federal assistance. Remote learning companies are finding ways to support teachers and kids. Even Zoom, which isn’t an education company at all, has redesigned some of its features to help teachers.

But a true reinvention of how this country educates students goes far beyond virtual babysitting apps or help with digital lesson planning. It would require a systematic, critical look at the educational systems we have in place—and who they’re serving. It would take a massive amount of funding, too, to support public schools. “We have the chance to do something really ambitious here,” writes Fast Companycontributor and USC professor Darby Saxbe. “A once-in-a-generation moon shot or Marshall Plan to make public schools better and more resilient.”

The stories in this week’s Reinventing Education package will outline the depths of the challenge facing our families, teachers, and the entire U.S. education system—and look toward solutions that could help us overcome this crisis. Read more here.

Read the full story at Fast Company.