“What can we do to support these students? Perhaps the answer is to find innovative solutions to these inequities, and to extract as much benefit as possible from the situation.”
he Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has raised many questions about American institutions—one of the most salient being the American education system, the strongest support for our civic culture, and democracy. The overnight transition to a fully virtual learning experience adopted by school districts across the country has created a whirlwind of change, and the pandemic has succeeded in highlighting inequities which tear at the civic education needed by all students.
The foundation of American democracy is our education system, and current trends in education, kickstarted by the pandemic, are a significant opportunity to strengthen civics education in our K-12 schools.
A great deal of education scholarship focuses on inequities, especially social and socioeconomic inequities that are perpetuated by drastic discrepancies in access to the technology and environment necessary to succeed in a virtual environment. The pandemic has caused parents, teachers, and administrators to devise new methods of instruction and classroom organization, and the threat of the virus has made reopening a contentious issue. Unfortunately, much of the current investigation has revealed that virtual education has intensified already present inequities, especially for low-income students and students of color. And yet, virtual education is not all bad news. Although in-person schooling is generally preferable for most students, virtual education presents significant opportunities for nonprofits, especially those seeking to fill gaps in the curriculum.
Education in a post-pandemic world will hopefully return to some degree of normalcy, whenever public health guidelines enable it. However, with millions of students and teachers having been exposed to a virtual education model for months on end, the landscape of education will undeniably change. An arena of significant change will be in extracurricular and supplemental education activities, including those in often-neglected areas, such as civics or government. An analysis of the financial status of extracurricular academic activities and the institutions that operate them, most importantly the nonprofit sector, reveals that the scalability of virtual education programs, specifically the ability to grow their reach and impact with little increase in overhead, makes them an ideal opportunity for growth. Nonprofits who previously might have spent money on overhead costs for in-person programming can now multiply their impact and save money by transitioning to a virtual model.
What specifically do I have in mind? The COVID-19 pandemic, and the resultant overnight shift of almost an entire generation of students into a year (or possibly more) of virtual education as a defining moment for the declining importance of civics education in our schools.
While online education will never fully replace in-person K-12 learning, it has long been an important supplement to the curriculum. In addition, student opinions on virtual learning are not always negative – many recognize its benefits and understand its necessity. Change often happens at the margins, and this scenario is no different. Positive change in the education system will happen at the margins as well. A shift to supplemental online education, provided by external actors, is especially possible for civics education – studies have demonstrated that such supplemental programs can significantly improve student performance. A recent study showed that even lightly trained volunteers can significantly increase academic gains in underserved areas, especially for students who have special learning requirements or are falling behind in class. While wealthy parents and school districts can often offer paid in-person tutoring, perhaps the nonprofit sector has a role to fill in providing virtual tutoring to schools and families who cannot pay for their own.
Another major opportunity in virtual education is extracurricular virtual education. Research has demonstrated that extracurricular academic activities are extremely important and consequential for long-term student outcomes and that activities like debate, Model UN, theatre, science and math Olympiads, and various similar activities are also disproportionately available in wealthy, mostly white districts. Such discrepancies are often directly tied to school funding and location, and thus create another major opportunity for a decentralized nonprofit sector.
Time and time again, scholars have demonstrated that American schools, especially urban schools, continue to be deeply segregated, underfunded, and unequal. These schools also suffer from a comprehensive lack of student support services and extracurricular programs, including those most necessary for educating our citizens. What can we do to support these students? Perhaps the answer is to find innovative solutions to these inequities, and to extract as much benefit as possible from the situation. Perhaps a generation of students acclimated to virtual learning might find it a useful supplement to their education. Virtual education may be lamented by many – but the opportunities that exist must be taken advantage of, for the sake of our most vulnerable students. The organizations poised to make the greatest impact are nonprofits, especially those which fill widely needed gaps in the curriculum. The expansion of flexible learning opportunities like these will be critical in advancing American education in years to come.
John George is a student at Columbia University.