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  • Writer's pictureMarco Annunziata

Peas In A Privileged Pod

In an emergency, we focus on the short term. Especially in a health emergency: if you don’t survive the short term, the long term hardly matters.

In this pandemic we seem unable to look beyond a few weeks out. “Let’s flatten the curve now, and then we’ll see.” The threat of exponential contagion exacerbates the short term tendency: epidemiologists have warned that if we don’t contain the virus, it will spread exponentially and the long term will be over in a flash.

A measure of magical economic thinking has also played into this: economists have assured us that government spending and money printing will patch up much of the economic damage—why worry about the long term?

This attitude leaves us shamefully unprepared for anything but the very short term. We’ve already seen it: in the US we flattened the curve, timidly reopened some economic activity, and when contagion predictably picked up, we panicked.

This short term thinking has disastrous consequences in one important area: education.

Distance learning has failed, partly because not enough schools or children are equipped for it: in the US, about one student in five lacks access to a reliable internet connection. Research reported by the Wall Street Journal indicates that students have learnt on average 30% less overall than in an average school year, and 50% less in math; the percentages are even lower for minority and lower income students. This is a disastrous outcome.

When a number of students can’t even access distance learning, you don’t have a level playing field. Some of the largest school districts, including Chicago and Los Angeles, therefore instructed school teachers not to fail any students; some teacher unions favored not giving any grades at all. The San Francisco school board even proposed giving all students straight As. This might sound great from an equity perspective, except that it wipes out any incentive to study. So “the Los Angeles Unified School District estimated that on any given day in a week span, 32% of high-school students didn’t log in to learn”, reports the WSJ.

The younger the kids, the worse the problem. University students can be more self-sufficient and motivated, but younger kids need supervision and support. Direct contact with your peers and teachers is a fundamental part of the learning experience, again all the more important for younger kids. Missing school time hinders social and emotional development and causes long-lasting learning handicaps. We already knew this from studies on the consequences of school absenteeism, a problem that affects especially children of low-income families and minorities.

Now that we’ve made school absenteeism systemic by shutting schools, the gap in education opportunity will widen even more. Kids in well to do, stable families have access to a fast internet connection, a good computer, educated parents who can help them and check their progress. Poorer kids often have none of the above; they are at much greater risk of domestic abuse. Over 11 million kids live in households where they can’t reliably get enough food; twice as many rely on subsidized lunch at school. Unable to go to school they are now going hungry. These were all predictable consequences of the sudden switch to online learning, and surveys have started to confirm they are indeed happening.

This pandemic has fueled an “everyone for himself” attitude. In the early stages, countries hoarded medical supplies and households hoarded toilet paper. Now those who can are hoarding education opportunities.

Parents with sufficient financial means are getting together to set up “learning pods”: small groups of children who get together on a daily basis to be taught by a privately hired teacher (or a qualified parent). This minimizes the risk of Covid-19 exposure, while giving the kids the benefit of interacting with their peers and receiving in-person schooling. Given the small size of the pod in fact, they will get even more attention and support than they would in a regular classroom. The trend has emerged in California, as well as in other areas of the country.

It’s a great solution—for those who can afford it.

Given their demographic characteristics, these parents are statistically likely to favor an extremely slow and cautious reopening of different activities, and to express deep concern for inequality.

Which is paradoxical, because their actions will exacerbate and entrench inequality in an even more extreme way.

Disparity of education opportunities already plays a major role in driving inequality of career opportunities and therefore income and wealth inequality. This will get worse as new graduates face a tougher job market and as technological disruption places a rising premium on the ability to adapt and to keep learning new skills. The education system represents the single most powerful chance of leveling the playing field. Keeping schools shut while higher income parents recreate their own education ecosystem will widen the learning gap between rich and poor kids, giving the latter a crippling disadvantage.

I don’t blame parents for trying to do the best for their children. And I understand the desire to do everything we can to keep the pandemic under control. But consider:

A number of scientific studies (many described in this article by the American Association for the Advancement of Science) indicate that children are much less likely than adults to contract and spread the virus; the younger the children, the ‘safer’ they appear to be: elementary school children are much less likely to contract and transmit the virus than high schoolers.

School teachers tend to be relatively young: the median age of US school teachers is 42, based on a recent government study. That means most of them face a significantly lower risk of serious consequences from Covid-19. Covid fatalities in the US tend to skew somewhat younger than in other Western countries, reflecting largely a greater incidence of comorbidities; but for those aged under 50, the risk seems as low as in other countries.

What should we do?

We do not have a zero-risk solution. Reopening schools does pose some risk to students and teachers, and some risk of contagion to the broader community. On the other hand, keeping schools closed for a long time is guaranteed to have a severe negative impact on the cognitive, social and emotional development of millions of kids, and on their life-long economic prospects.

A number of countries around the world have already experimented with different strategies to reopen schools while limiting contagion risks: reducing class sizes, requiring or encouraging masks, engineering some degree of social distancing. The strategies differ from country to country. Some, like Sweden, never closed schools.

Science does not have all the answers. The evidence we have so far, however, suggests that the risks of reopening schools are manageable, and the long-term benefits for millions of kids should be worth it. Many countries have indeed decided to move in that direction.

The prospect of a significant further increase in inequality of opportunities should be taken seriously and addressed.

Perhaps the parents who are setting up private learning pods could consider including some disadvantaged kids; subsidizing their education could be a worthy substitute for the usual charitable contributions.

Local governments should prioritize the reopening of school activities for kids who have no alternative access to education; maybe at a smaller scale, maybe with teachers joining the effort on a voluntary basis and rewarded accordingly.

To simply allow the current crisis to cripple the long-term prospects of millions of underprivileged children, to widen learning and economic inequalities and entrench them for years to come, is unconscionable. And yet this is being abetted by some of the same people and institutions who claim to be deeply concerned about inequality.

Establishing universal public education has been one of the most important steps towards improving broader access to opportunities, in the US and elsewhere in the world. We should not risk setting back the clock by over a century

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