Inequality has worsened across the board during the pandemic. That has proven particularly true for low-income students.
Already disadvantaged to start, many remote students in lower-income households had to worry about stable internet connections, available devices to log into school sessions, and getting personalized attention and help with homework or difficult subjects.
The negative effects of the pandemic are boosting an already vicious circle: students from low income homes tend to have access to fewer educational enrichment opportunities and are more likely to go to schools that are historically under-funded.
“The pandemic has exacerbated well-documented opportunity gaps that put low-income students at a disadvantage relative to their better-off peers,” Emma Garcia and Elaine Weiss from the Economic Policy Institute wrote in September. They defined opportunity gaps as limits in access to conditions and resources that enhance learning and development.
Socio-economic factors are among the biggest drivers of educational success for kids, Garcia and Weiss found in a 2017 study. Children who fall behind in their early education rarely make up the lost ground, they said.
That can do lifelong damage to people’s wealth: Higher educational attainment correlates with lower poverty rates, according to the Census Bureau. A 2018 paper from the Congressional Research Service showed 78.9% of working-age adults living in poverty in the United States had at most a high school diploma – a much higher percentage than in the general population, where only 56% of people had at most a high school diploma.
The opportunity gap that Garcia and Weiss warned about always existed — but it got worse in the pandemic.
“This is not new,” Garcia, who focuses on education policy in her work as an economist, told CNN Business. But the consequences from the pandemic will compound and last beyond just the short-term, she said.
For example, the Center for American Progress said that pandemic exacerbated the Black-White education divide: Black households were more likely to experience job losses as a result of the pandemic, leading to an erosion of wealth and affected kids’ ability to learn.
“Kids are resilient and they learn something, so the question is going to be what each kid learned. That’s going to be very different,” said Betsey Stevenson, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan who served on President Barack Obama’s council of economic advisers.
Although some children may have gotten ahead in a particular subject during remote learning, others are now further behind than they were before the pandemic.
Double-whammy for lower income households
In many ways, the pandemic was a perfect storm for lower income households: Those parents were more likely to lose their jobs or be on the front lines as essential workers, while also having less household wealth. In comparison, parents in higher income households were more likely to have established careers and be able to work remotely.
“We have this bifurcated society where some kids’ parents are in their 20s and some kids’ parents are in their 40s,” Stevenson said. And this makes a difference when it comes to household wealth and educational opportunities afforded to children.
This, too, was an issue before the pandemic. But it got worse because of it.
“People who are a little bit older have more established work lives. That just means higher incomes,” said Stevenson. “Everyone is earning less in their 20s than in their 30s. And for people with higher education that curve is steeper.”
On top of that, people with higher levels of education tend to delay child rearing longer, which exacerbates the wealth inequality between younger and older parents even further.
An uneven return to school
Re-engaging students after more than a year in non-traditional learning scenarios will be a steep challenge for educators and the government alike.
Personalized learning for students and increased resources for schools and teachers are some obvious ways to start attacking this problem, Garcia said. But pandemic opportunity gaps can’t be solved with a one-size-fits-all approach.
“This is not about a unique solution. This is about learning and understanding how kids were learning and developing during the pandemic,” Garcia said.
Worse still, the students most likely to benefit from re-engagement initiatives are also more likely to be in areas where schools are historically under-resourced, she added.
It’s too early to tell how the pandemic effects will play out for the generation of school kids who went through Covid-19. Those who can’t catch up on the material could still be at a disadvantage when they enter adulthood.
Plus some evidence is starting to show an increase in high school dropouts, said Garcia, citing enrollment data compiled by EducationWeek that found America’s public schools lost 1.3 million students over the past year. For some students, part-time jobs may have turned into full-time jobs, for example. Some are helping to support their families.
“It will be the case that some kids will just not find their way back to school,” Garcia said.
Action before data
The pandemic was so sudden and devastating that policymakers have had to come up with plans before much of the data detailing the damage was in. The situation is similar here.
“We need to distribute a lot of resources over the next three years to make sure our kids are healed and are made whole for the pandemic,” said Stevenson.
“You may or may not be able to measure how far ahead or behind a student is. But these disparities increase. So if you really want to intervene, you have to think about the strategies that are necessary,” Garcia added.
This could require more leadership from local school districts or incentives provided by state or even the federal government to close the gaps.