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Education, Equity and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The VCU Wilder School Office of Research and Outreach
March 4, 2022

With innumerable challenges and changes precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, those related to K-12 education have been among the most salient in garnering media attention. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine emphasize how the “impact of the pandemic has laid bare the deep, enduring inequities that afflict the nation in a wide range of areas, including the education system.” Arguably, of the challenges education systems have faced during the pandemic, disparities in educational achievement is one of the most consequential.

Pandemic Impacts on Education Equity

Research conducted by Dorn et al. sought to predict national trends in educational achievement and long term effects of the pandemic with statistical modeling and inferences drawn from recent economic downturns. They suggest communities of low socioeconomic status, as well as racial and ethnic minorities, would disproportionately experience education funding cuts, learning loss and drop outs. In their model, Dorn et al. infer that without adequate provisions to close learning gaps, the United States economy risks losing between “$173 billion to $271 billion a year” in GDP, which will take effect by 2040 as today’s K–12 students will be well-integrated into the workforce.

Similarly, Montacute suggests that gaps in educational attainment will continue to widen as families of higher socioeconomic status are more likely to be able to afford private tutoring and private school tuition. With immutable differences in institutional funding, parental engagement and student access to online learning resources, learning outcomes can vary drastically from one student to another. In their study, Montacute finds 69% of private school educators reported feeling equipped to provide instruction via online modalities compared to 40 percent of public school educators. Montacute underpins the need to close learning gaps in early education as it is demonstrably related to social mobility.

Despite widespread demands for remote learning in the early stages of the pandemic, disparate accessibility to online learning resources has persisted. According to the Brookings Institute, students of color are more likely to live in “online only” school districts. This finding is attributed to elevated racial diversity in cities, which tend to have more Democratic policymakers. In turn, COVID conscious measures are more likely to be undertaken in urban areas in comparison to rural, Republican areas. Consequently, minority and low-income students are more likely to continue with virtual learning modalities when masking and vaccination mandates are lifted, in comparison to their peers in dissimilar social, political and physical contexts since the pandemic.

Underpinning adverse effects caused by abrupt changes in teaching approaches, Middleton calls attention to learning deficits among students with learning differences bound to increase during the pandemic. Placement of students with varying abilities in the same classes poses an additional challenge as educators contend with conflicting demands. However, Black et al. suggest online learning modalities may present students with special health care needs an improved sense of autonomy as they can take greater control of their education with greater flexibility in scheduling. In this way, immunocompromised students and those with other health concerns are able to keep pace with their peers, especially as vaccination and mask mandates are rescinded.

Public Opinion in Virginia

As the Virginia General Assembly convenes, Virginians have made it clear that they would like to see education addressed in the legislative session. Per the recent statewide Commonwealth Poll conducted by the Office of Research and Outreach at the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginians mostly agree that remote learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental to academic achievement. Respondents largely reflected trends revealed in prior literature whereby 79% reported feeling that remote learning resulted in K-12 students falling behind, 13% felt there were generally no effects on academic achievement, and 3% felt online learning helped students get ahead. Virginians’ concerns over academic achievement have lent to increased debate over expanding and funding charter schools. Over half of respondents (52%) supported increasing charter schools in the state, while one-third (34%) opposed an increase. As a focal point of Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s platform, this will likely continue to be a prevalent topic in Virginia education. According to the NCSL, Virginia disbursed CARES Act funding to allow educators to share instruction online throughout the state to bridge the gap in accessibility of remote instruction.

Virtual learning is likely going to remain a fixture in the American education system. There is an opportunity to learn from the challenges of the past two years to address gaps in academic achievement and mitigate learning loss among vulnerable students. More specifically, students of low socioeconomic, minority, ability and health status, who are disproportionately affected by online learning, could catch up with their peers. Future scholarship will certainly have ample data to further discuss pandemic-induced trends.


Author: The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School aims to enhance, promote, and celebrate the research of Wilder School faculty and students. The Office also oversees the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, as well as research from the Wilder School’s Centers and Institutes.

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