My research idea sparked with an interest in learning about how the coronavirus crisis impacts education. What I appreciate most about my research is how relevant and quickly-evolving this idea is. I began this summer with the intention to study how remote learning resources differ across public schools in the Philadelphia area. I was interested in studying the disproportionate access to computers, WiFi, quiet work areas, and parental support across different socioeconomic areas. However, as the COVID-19 crisis evolved, I realized that my question must evolve as well. In the spring, we saw all schools across Pennsylvania forced to rapidly transition to complete remote learning, in order to contain the spread of the virus. However, with the summer coming to an end and fall approaching, different schools have very different reopening plans. For instance, as I mentioned in my first blog post, my dad is a teacher in the Philadelphia School District. His district announced last week that they will operate completely online until at least November 17th. My home district, the Council Rock School District, located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, announced they will operate online for the first two weeks of the school year, before transitioning to a mix of online and in-person learning starting September 29th. Recently, I was having a conversation with a family friend, who is sending her daughter to a private high school in New Jersey this fall. Her experience is completely different, as the school is planning to fully reopen in person, along with extreme protocols in place: all students and teachers being tested for COVID-19 multiple times in their first two weeks back to campus, classrooms limited to seven students and one teacher, and designated personal spaces oncampus designed for students to attend classes on zoom, yet feel like they still have a space on campus.
Hearing about these vastly different reopening plans across a fairly small radius peaked my interest. I realized students have extremely different circumstances, especially right now, determined by the location of their home and economic status. This influenced me to adjust my research. Rather than looking at equity concerns regarding the switch to remote learning, I will be looking at school reopening plans specifically. What resources do these schools provide to students and parents during this time regarding their plans? Do students have the option to engage in any in-person learning this fall, and if so, how soon? Is there widespread testing available through the school? I am intrigued to learn how the COVID-19 crisis and the vastly different reopening plans across schools may end up worsening existing educational inequality, putting lower-income students at an even greater disadvantage compared to their peers.
Existing literature surrounding educational inequality suggests there is an achievement gap in the American public education system. The “achievement gap” refers to a difference in academic performance among groups of students, which surfaces in grades, standardized-tests, graduation rates, college-completion rates, and other measures of success. Low-income students and students from historically marginalized racial groups, on average, perform poorer than their more privileged peers. The 2019 High School Benchmarks Report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found students from higher-income high schools were 25% more likely to enroll in college after high school than students from low-income high schools. Additionally, students from low-poverty high schools were more than twice as likely to earn a degree within six years of graduating high school (53%), than students from high-poverty schools (21%). With the passing of the No Child Left Behind Actof 2001, shrinking these achievement gaps became a greater focus federally. There were more targeted interventions for certain students, but clearly the achievement gaps have not disappeared. The COVID-19 crisis sheds even more light on the persistent educational inequalities in our community, as there are some students who are being tested for the virus weekly and offered a chance to learn partially in-person, while others struggle to even find a computer, WiFi, or a quiet workspace from home. Along with immense change this past year, as a society, we have been given an opportunity to question social injustices and inequalities in our nation. My question I am pursuing is important because high inequality is one of our country’s most extreme and relevant issues. Business Insider recently released that billionaires became $637 billion richer during the pandemic, while more than 40 million Americans filed for unemployment. This would not be as major of a concern if new generations had an educational system which allowed them to rise above their circumstances at birth.
Through a comparative case study, I will study how the COVID-19 crisis disproportionally affects low-income students, by looking at various schools’ reopening plans in the Philadelphia area specifically. I hope you find this topic as interesting and pressing as I do, and I am excited to blog through my journey.