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It's time to give our kids the education they deserve

It's time to give our kids the education they deserve
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The discovery, testing and mass production of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines is a remarkable scientific feat that is slowly edging us back to normalcy. But vaccination is only part of the process of returning the lives of millions of children to their pre-pandemic routine. And that “routine” was far from ideal even before the virus struck, with wide achievement gaps, expensive, often inaccessible child care, and parents struggling to manage it all. 

Instead of winding back the clock to February 2020, this is the moment to create opportunity out of crisis. Our current education system was developed during an epoch when it was assumed that one parent would be available for young children and out-of-school time. Public schooling begins arbitrarily at age 5, and follows a school-day that is on a 10-month schedule. This antiquated model fails to follow the modern science of child development and the reality that most American children live in homes with dual-earning or single-earner parents.

As we look ahead, this pandemic’s devastating and disproportionate impact on our children offers a unique opportunity to create a new educational paradigm, broaden educational opportunity and narrow the disparities that were pervasive before COVID-19 and widened by the pandemic.

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First, we need to increase the amount of time that children spend at school. The vaccination of teachers, staff and parents facilitates the return to the physical classroom. But unless community spread is very low, physical distancing, testing and other public health measures will remain necessary in most preschools and K-12 schools. This means a continuation of the hybrid model of in-person and virtual school.

Sadly, part-time schooling will neither stem nor reverse the learning loss we already have witnessed since 2020 for so many children — disproportionately those in low-income families and of color. Time at school and school attendance are critical to achievement. The American Rescue Plan Act signed into law last month can provide schools — including those that were overcrowded before the pandemic — with the resources they need to provide enough space and staffing to open full-time to all families who opt in come by the fall of 2021.

A return to the school schedule that was in place prior to COVID-19 is not enough. The pandemic has shone a harsh spotlight on the antiquated school schedule that leads to an expensive juggle of school, before/after school, and summer care arrangements that leaves out families who can’t afford them. Extended day and summer programs are strategies that can mitigate the pandemic’s learning loss, and if sustained after this crisis ends, could narrow socioeconomic gaps — especially in the summer, when achievement gaps grow.

Second, we must sustain and increase investments in smaller classes and in the people who teach them well past the pandemic. Experimental research finds that smaller classes lead to improved educational and economic outcomes well into adulthood. Paying teachers more — treating them as the essential workers they are — can help correct for the decades of decreases in public teacher salaries and abysmally low early educator wages.

Finally, this pandemic highlights the long-standing, but now more urgent, need to invest in education much earlier in a child’s life. In 2015, federal, state and local spending on education and care per child under 18 averaged $8,527, but per child aged 0-2 years, it was just $437. This is despite the reams of research showing the importance of the first years of life for mental, physical and cognitive development, and the reality that most parents with young children have a job outside the home. 

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While these expenses may be costly initially, they are a critical investment in the future of this country. Unless we intervene now, the youngest Americans will continue to pay dearly for this pandemic in their future health and economic outcomes.

This historic moment and the new federal funding offer the opportunity to build our education system back better. It’s up to us as a nation to come together and make the decisions to do so to repay our children for their pandemic sacrifices.

Taryn Morrissey is an associate professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs and co-author of “Cradle to Kindergarten: A New Plan to Combat Inequality.”