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Education flip-flops in 2020

The pandemic disrupted classes and school district plans around the country this year


Students arrive for in-person classes in New York in September. Associated Press/Photo by John Minchillo (file)

Education flip-flops in 2020

COVID-19 upended education this year, forcing a mass experiment in crisis homeschooling and online school. Protests this summer also reached campus, driving not just public statements but changes in grading, admissions, and school safety. And while student debt cancellation and Betsy DeVos’s replacement as secretary of education may dominate next year’s education headlines, this year’s financial crisis for colleges will also have far-reaching consequences. Here are 2020’s top education stories.

The move to Zoom

Starting in Washington, schools first closed for a few days to disinfect classrooms. Then for two weeks to slow the spread of COVID-19. Then March became April and closures became indefinite, lurching families and students into distance learning.

For many families, virtual classes proved a nearly insurmountable barrier, particularly for those with special education students. Into the fall, students faced technical difficulties, dramatically changed testing standards, and virtual solutions that were sometimes worse than the problems they were trying to solve. Schools battled shortages as they bought thousands of laptops and beamed Wi-Fi into school parking lots. Many continued offering school lunches to help out struggling families.

In response, some parents experimented with homeschooling, switched to online schools, or created pandemic pods in the spring and fall.

Reopening wars

In the face of technical obstacles, struggling students, and an exodus of families to alternative education options, many school districts were desperate to reopen in the fall. Teachers unions were equally desperate to avoid reopening, with some protesting and threatening “safety strikes.” New York City delayed the start of school twice. Older teachers contemplated early retirement, while concerns grew that new teachers might quit after facing more first-year challenges than usual. Some educators found creative ways to teach safely in person, such as music teachers allowing singers to hum instead of sing indoors.

Around the world, students returned to classrooms in large numbers, but by October only 16 percent of U.S. school districts were providing full-time, in-person classes. By November, studies suggested that classrooms with young children are not coronavirus superspreaders, offering hope that states could start prioritizing a return to semi-normal classes soon.

Higher education woes and blows

While colleges and universities started putting new pandemic procedures in place early in the summer, few of those plans survived the fall surge of COVID-19 cases. Students faced a whiplash of rapidly changing instructions, with some returning home just weeks after moving into their dorms. As the pandemic ate into their budgets, some schools started cutting sports programs that brought in less money, leaving students on scholarship or who picked a school for a dropped activity in a bind. Other students felt cheated after paying thousands of dollars in tuition only to spend much of the spring semester taking online classes from their bedrooms, and some sued for refunds for the lost experience. Coming into the fall, a large number of young adults opted to put off going to college altogether rather than dish out the money under a shroud of uncertainty. All this left higher education in a pretty poor place, though elite schools with deep pockets tended to fare better.

But many institutions couldn’t entirely blame the pandemic for a rough year. The “Varsity Blues” admissions scam that rippled through higher education last year continued to bear rotten fruit: A report in September found some University of California schools accepted underqualified applicants in exchange for donations and other questionable conditions. And a separate investigation by the Department of Education found U.S. colleges and universities failed to disclose more than $6.5 billion in funding and resources from foreign nations.

The nation’s colleges and universities also found themselves caught up in the tense race relations of 2020…

Reckoning with race

Many K-12 schools took cues from the protestors who flooded the streets this summer after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. A Virginia school district spent $20,000 to host author Ibram X. Kendi for an hour-long discussion of antiracism and another $24,000 on his books. Some schools have opted to teach The New York Times’ controversial and flawed 1619 Project, sparking backlash. Other schools took a more practical step, cutting ties with local police departments.

Colleges and universities wrote statements pledging to confront racism. Princeton University’s statement, which said racism still influences the school, prompted an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education. Like many schools, Princeton receives federal funding that cannot sponsor racial discrimination. Meanwhile, an appeals court upheld affirmative action and agreed with Harvard that its admissions process does not illegally discriminate against Asian Americans. Undaunted, the Justice Department sued Yale in August on similar charges.

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