By Guest Contributor Lisa Wolfe
Now that the second half of the school year is underway, let’s take a look at the hot topics in education for 2021. Although COVID-19 has put added pressure on the education system, many of this year’s topics are the same ones that the community has dealt with for ages. The pandemic has increased the spotlight on these issues and, in many instances, presented potential ways to finally face and resolve them. The following six topics and more will likely permeate our national discourse on education in 2021 and beyond.
- Digital Divide. The U.S. Department of Commerce published its first look at the digital divide in 1995—26 years ago. At that time, they found stark racial, economic, and geographic gaps between those who had online access and those who did not. In 2020, the National Education Association* reported that one quarter of households with children ages 5 to 17 didn’t have either high-speed Wi-Fi, a computer, or both. For families near the poverty line, the number was close to half.
A positive outcome from the pandemic has been the brighter light highlighting the digital divide and its impact on educational and socio-economic opportunities for families. In many communities, telecommunications companies have stepped up to provide families with free Wi-Fi. Cities and philanthropies have contributed as well. In Chicago, a $50 million plan to provide free high-speed internet service to 100,000 Chicago Public School students was philanthropically funded during the summer of 2020. In addition, some school districts have used their federal stimulus funds to ensure that all students have home access to Wi-Fi for learning.
- Learning Loss. Ensuring that all students achieve their full potential has been an education hot topic for decades. The No Child Left Behind Act was launched in 2001 to try to close the learning gap, building on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was voted into law nearly 40 years before, in 1965. In 2021, educators are faced with the historical challenges of ensuring educational equity while also tackling the gaps in learning that resulted from last year’s unpredicted switch to remote learning.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only deepened that gap for many students. School districts around the country have reported a higher level of failing grades and a report from McKinsey & Company** estimated that students were three months behind in math when they started the school year. Because the number of students it impacts has recently been accelerated, more people are weighing in on the problem and a need for a solution.
- Student Loan Debt. Among the hottest topics in higher ed is what to do about the more than 42 million Americans with $1.57 trillion in student loan debt. Awareness of this issue was heightened because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act froze student loan payments and set the interest rate to 0%. President Biden recently extended that relief through September 30, 2021. What to do about this massive debt long term is likely to be a topic of much debate over the next year, and the final decisions will have an impact on colleges, universities and, of course, graduates around the country.
- Educational Equity. In 2020, MDR hosted a webinar on ensuring educational equity. A comment from one of our panelists, Lacey Robinson, CEO and president of UnboundEd, succinctly summed up where we are today, “The door of inequity was cracked open and we could no longer ignore what we were battling prior to the COVID crisis.”
The same McKinsey & Company** report cited above concluded that students of color could be 6-to-12 months behind, compared with 4-to-8 months for white students. All students are suffering, but those who came into the pandemic with the least access to academic opportunity may suffer the greatest learning loss.
Schools and districts have the opportunity now to elevate educational equity and ensure that all students have the access, opportunities, and support to thrive in school, ensuring that all students are prepared for college and career. Funding from the Federal CARES Act and now the COVID-19 Relief Act can be used to help level that playing field by providing all students with technology and online access for both remote learning and to support learning at home after they return to school.
- Remote Learning. Remote, virtual, online learning—however you term it—is likely here to stay. 2020 was an initiation by fire for districts around the country when they had to pivot to remote learning in literally a moment’s notice. Lots of lessons were learned and you can see that in the more successful implementation of remote learning with the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. As more schools return to face-to-face learning in 2021, there will be discussions about how to keep it as part of overall school programs. Do districts use it to make snow days a thing of the past? Are there certain students for whom remote is a better option, and how do districts staff and fund that option? The possibilities are endless and, in the end, have the potential to personalize learning for more students and address some issues of educational equity.
- Support for Teachers. Our nearly four million K-12 teachers have experienced a year like no other. Overall, they have dealt with the challenges of switching back and forth from face-to-face learning to remote learning to hybrid models, with creativity, grit, and a sense of humor. In fact, we recently learned of a New York elementary teacher who created a hotline that people can call into and scream if they are “unhappy, terrified, frustrated, or elated.”
On a more serious note, the ways that we reward and appreciate teachers have been a hot topic in education for decades. We’ve had Teacher Appreciation Week since 1985, but we also read stories every year about the staggering amount of personal funds that teachers use to outfit their classrooms and provide school supplies for their students.
All of this makes the time ripe for a heightened discussion on the ways that we reward and appreciate teachers in our country.
All of these challenges present those of us who serve the education community with opportunities to help and make a positive impact on the topics we’ve discussed in our community for years. As you plan your 2021 marketing activities, it will be important to think about the ways that your company and your solutions can help educators leverage the experiences of the past year to make positive changes for their students and teachers. As always, MDR is here to help.
* The Digital Divide and Homework Gap in Your State
** COVID-19 and learning loss—disparities grow and students need help
Lisa Wolfe is the President of L. Wolfe Communications
Founded in April 2000, L. Wolfe Communications offers its clients a network of senior, experienced public relations executives with a variety of complementary experience and expertise in public relations and communications for the education and library markets.