Most major US universities have closed and moved to online classes for the remainder of the semester. K12 education has moved slower. Many districts have decided to close until at least the first week of April, but there are some districts that have not made the decision yet. Very few districts have closed for the remainder of the year and no states have made formal decisions about end-of-year assessments.
The barriers to closing K12 schools are much greater than that for colleges. In terms of child welfare, we are facing two major challenges:
- Many families will have difficulties in finding quality child care for their children during the pandemic, and many impoverished children receive free lunch and breakfast through their schools.
- There are many limitations to moving to full online education. Many students who do not have appropriate internet and technology access, and teachers are under-equipped in building effective online curricula.
Closing schools for the remainder of the year may be one of the most effective tools in limiting community transmission. And since this pandemic could require social distancing for many months of the next school year, we must figure out ways to ensure that schools can remain effective while still serving students remotely.
School closure decisions are up to many different state, local, and private decision makers. Without significant support from federal and state policy, there is a good chance that many areas could return to school prematurely which would prolong and worsen the pandemic. In order to mitigate this risk, policymakers must address (1) long-term access to effective online schooling and (2) affordability for childcare and food. I will outline some ideas for how to address these concerns.
Improving Access to Effective Online Schooling
If this is handled appropriately, it could mark a radical change in the status quo for K-12 education. In the short-term, we need to figure out ways to allow schools to be closed for the remainder of the year while still bringing instruction to students. In the long-term, we may need to build a system that can weather many more months of closure in the upcoming school year.
There are three primary barriers. The first and most important one is a lack of at-home internet access for many underserved children. Although many students may have access to a computer or a smartphone, there are many students who would have a difficult time effectively getting instruction without some financial support for internet. Along with this, many students will need support in getting appropriate technology. The final issue is a lack of support for teachers in developing effective online curricula.
Many teachers can already move their curricula online. Many students have access to some type of computer. However, there are millions of households without at home internet access, therefore, the first priority is affordable internet
A catch-all policy would be to provide extra cash transfers to parents of children on free-and-reduced-lunch in order to cover nutritional, childcare, internet and computer costs during the pandemic. Although this is straightforward, it would extremely costly. There are 30.3 million children on free and reduced lunch and the average cost of nutrition (~$160 a month), childcare (~$1230 a month), technology ($150 for a new Lenovo chromebook), and Wi-Fi (~$50 a month) would make the program prohibitively expensive, so policymakers will instead need to more specifically target the unique needs of different affected families.
State and local policy makers could subsidize the cost of internet for families of students in K-12 through family tax breaks or direct transfers to internet providers. That could also come in the form of tax breaks for internet providers who waive late fees, provide family discounts, or give full payment credit to affected families during school closures.
Behind internet access, the second biggest barrier is a lack of access to computers. Although this could be remedied through tax breaks and cash transfers to families that directly apply for funds to pay for computers, the most reasonable option may be to directly subsidize schools in organizing distribution of laptops to students. There are already many policies in place to support technology-based learning in school systems. Most schools already have access to computer carts and laptops that will not be used during the pandemic. So federal and state policymakers could provide subsidies to schools (with a possible first emphasis on title 1 schools) with the purpose of funding the purchasing, distribution, and maintenance of laptops to students who do not currently have them.
Many teachers are already capable of transitioning their curricula into online classrooms. However, there will be significant barriers to transitioning curricula in ways that will maintain student learning during school closures. It may be necessary to build financial and educational supports for developing effective online educators.
The first and most reasonable lever for this would be an infusion of funds to schools with the purpose of buying monthly memberships to online education platforms that could improve school effectiveness (Zoom, Kahoot, Quizlet Pro, etc.). On the other side, policymakers could also provide tax breaks to eligible education technology companies that provide their services at a discount to schools and school districts. By increasing access to education technology tools, policymakers may be able to mitigate some of the learning loss during the pandemic.
Alongside this we should also see an infusion of grants and research funding during the closure. These should be focused on how to most effectively bring online education to US K12 students. This could look like grants to education technology groups to build useful tools, but it could also look research grants to academic groups in researching effective systems and impacts on academic performance.
A last possibility is to provide paid education to teachers during the summer of 2020 on how to provide quality online education during closures in the upcoming school year.
Supports for Childcare Costs
The majority of childcare support will come through the cash transfers, rent supports, and unemployment benefits that are already being put in place at the state and federal level. With a robust enough distribution of funds at the outset of this crisis, we may be able to cover a large portion of the childcare costs that will be lost during school closure. However, with 30.3 million children on free-and-reduced-lunch, it is necessary to figure out how to divert current funds in order to provide nutrition during school closures. Alongside that we will have to build some form of safe childcare support for workers who are essential to the maintenance of the economy.
Perhaps the most reasonable way to make up for the loss of nutritional support during school closures is to possibly divert existing free-and-reduced-lunch funds to affected families through an increase in WIC payments. However this may be difficult since state, local, and federal funding have already been allotted to schools. Another option is to provide extra subsidies to schools in order to allow them to provide meal kits and/or food rations to affected families during school closures. Since there is already existing infrastructure set up within schools for student nutrition, schools could continue to employ nutritional staff who would work to build these possible meal kits which could be distributed to affected families on a weekly basis. Extra subsidies could then be put into hiring more staff to prepare and distribute such meals.
A more extreme and possibly unrealistic option would be to cover shipping costs for meal prep services to affected families. In this scenario, existing food prep services could be paid through subsidies or tax breaks to send out lunch and breakfast meal kits to families affected by school closure.
While all of these options will have their own logistical drawbacks, it is necessary to build policies to better support the health of children during the pandemic. This may be essential in preventing further strain on the healthcare system.
The most effective means of protection from community transmission is to ensure that children are being taken care of without significant contact with many other children. Due to this concern, we cannot just start funding massive childcare groups that will end up playing the exact same role that a school would in significantly worsening community transmission.
In a perfect world family members and trusted friends could take sole ownership of child care during the crisis. Although it is not ideal, leveraging existing familial social networks may be the most effective way to allow children to be taken care of while at the same time not being kept in close contact to many other children. Some of this will happen organically through church groups and family, but federal and state policymakers may be able to build incentives and financial supports to help encourage robust child care during school closures.
These supports could look like extra cash transfers to unemployed workers who are taking care of the children of other family members. This could also look like enhanced payroll tax breaks to cover child care over the course of the next year. It may be most effective to build other incentives that allow for organic community organizing of childcare.
Federal and state policymakers could also look to improve the cost efficiency of existing child care groups. While this is not preferable because it could increase community transmission, it may still be an effective way to support some workers. This could be done through tax breaks and subsidies to childcare groups that provide discounts to affected families during the crisis.