• Coronavirus-induced school closures in the US has removed a safety-net for many, going beyond education.
  • Virtual classrooms are highlighting social inequalities, be it differences in home furnishings or a lack of internet to even join the call.
  • Just as important as how virtual the autumn 2020 term should be, is the question of how inclusive it can be made.

When governments across the globe enacted “stay-at-home” orders, it changed the fabric of how we interact within our society. In one fell swoop, we saw the closure of schools, educational institutions and universities.

Thousands of students went from learning in a physical space to a virtual realm; within a matter of days, educators had transformed lesson plans into content fit for Zoom.

In the US in May this year the situation was the following: 48 states, four US territories, the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) had ordered or recommended school-building closures for the rest of the academic year. The effects would be felt by some 50.8 million public school students.

Within one classroom, we can have students join sessions from the Hamptons, while others join from their crowded apartments, sometimes even shelters.

—Priyanka Jaisinghani

Coronavirus-induced school closures have impacted at least 124,000 US public and private schools.

The temporary closure of thousands of schools has disrupted more than day-to-day education. Schools served as a safety net for many students; they acted as a gateway to hot meals, special education services, therapy, high-speed internet access and more.

When we removed the physicality of school, these safety nets evaporated and we removed access to these vital services.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Within the past few months, this new world has transformed living rooms, bedrooms and all available corners of a home into the new classroom. We’re seeing the combination of this new format and school closures has exposed the fragility of our education system and widened the inequality gap.

Within one classroom, we can have students join sessions from the Hamptons, while others join from their crowded apartments, sometimes even shelters. Students are conscious about their environment, their insecurities have been amplified. The physical space of school created an equal equation.

Many students struggle to join virtual classes as they lack access to reliable internet service. According to reports from the Federal Communications Commission, some 20 million Americans do not have access to the internet, and a large portion of those students without access are students of colour.

The transition to online has impacted vulnerable communities in a disproportionate way.

With lockdown measures, many such students aren’t able to go to alternative locations to access better and faster wifi, and yet digital access is no longer a luxury; it is now essential to life.

When we look a little closer at the accessibility of resources, some 10% of students (ages 3-19) live in households without access to a laptop or desktop computer. Within a single household, students are also facing the tricky reality of sharing a single device with siblings and/or parents.

Poor access to both the internet and devices increases for lower-income students. School closures might only end up totalling three months of the academic year but the effects are not to be underestimated with the likelihood being that disadvantaged students will fall further behind.

Looking towards the future

As schools look try to navigate the rest of their school year safely and securely, they have the opportunity to recreate the space. We can reimagine how education can be inclusive and what it should look like.

We’ve seen how in this completely remote learning environment, virtual cannot be the solution as we are not on equal footing.

Without the vital resources that schools provide, students will be left behind, and vulnerable communities impacted in disproportionate fashion.

In the coming weeks, schools across the US and indeed the world over will unveil plans for the autumn term to either be completely remote, in-person or a hybrid approach. Irrespective of the approach taken, how are they planning to create an inclusive plan to support students?

It is possible to imagine what a more equal education system could look like. New York State has already made strides in reimagining a new world of education by collaborating with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to redesign future schooling.

This collaboration can act as a blueprint for schools across the nation in rethinking our current inadequate structures.

As Governor Cuomo has said, “One of the areas we can really learn from is education because the old model of our education system where everyone sits in a classroom is not going to work in the new normal."

Among those opportunities there to seize are reducing education inequality, meeting the educational needs of students with disabilities, breaking down barriers to high-quality education and preparing our educators with an expanded toolkit.