SciPolBites is a series of reflections from NSPN members about current issues in science and policy. In this SciPolBite, two members share their perspectives on education in the time of COVID-19, from the intersections of education with social justice to the ways we communicate science online.

Paige Greenwood (@pentopaige_)

Education in COVID-19: A JEDI Perspective

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, school systems had to become creative with implementing online lesson plans, only to scratch the surface of their students’ needs through a computer screen. The cost of virtual learning has been devastating especially in rural and high poverty communities due to technological barriers and lost one on one instruction time during lessons hindering student achievement outcomes. Students of color have sat at the precipice of disparities in academic growth with a recent study from the Fall of 2020 showing three to five months of learning loss in math vs. one to three months for white students. As students return to school, it is essential for policymakers and educators to address the widening academic achievement that will greatly hinder the most marginalized.

On January 21, 2021, President Joe Biden submitted an Executive Order on Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers. The Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Health and Human Services aim to identify strategies to offset the impact of COVID-19 on educational outcomes disproportionately impacting low-income and/or students of color, which will be shared with State, local, Tribal and territorial officials. In identifying such strategies, it is relevant to build upon the core of preexisting educational disparities in math and reading achievement for students of color pre-pandemic. Black, Hispanic/Latinx, and Native American students were more likely to attend school districts that received 13% less in state and local funding per student than school districts serving lower percentages of students of color. In addition, inexperienced teachers, the rigor of the courses, and reduced academic expectations are all plagues on the achievement of students of color. These are all substantial aspects to consider when driving strategies to provide equity for all students when returning to school.

The U.S. Department of Education has approved seven of the 39 state plans for COVID-relief spending under the American Rescue Plan (ARP) which includes input from local school districts and charter networks on the investment of resources and spending to address the needs of disadvantaged students. Data collection on the evidence-based strategies that will be implemented to account for learning loss this upcoming school year should be examined in relation to pre-pandemic academic years’ learning methods with demographic information in mind. It is essential to ensure that we are considering the past in righting the educational wrongs against students of color.

Stuti Chakraborty (LinkedIn)

Education in COVID-19: An Outreach Perspective

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, most schools, universities and other educational institutions around the world have taken to teaching students online. The entire experience of physical contact with and being in the proximity of your peers, in-person feedback from your teachers and participatory learning in classrooms through discussion, demonstrations and engagements, has been uprooted and transferred to online platforms.

This transformation has undoubtedly had a major impact on how students around the world are taught, how they learn new concepts and how they make associations between what they have learnt, with different aspects of life and living. As if the four walls of classrooms weren't restrictive enough, students now have to stick to the four walls of their bedroom. Research has shown both positive and negative impacts of the online learning model on students. While some students have admitted to being able to make use of online learning in order to attain more credits, self-pace content and study material, others have noted experiencing feelings of isolation and alienation along with the technical challenges that are inevitable with having classes online.

Speaking from our personal experience, an online mode of interaction and delivery is what has made our initiative thrive. We, at Stimulus, aim to raise awareness about the brain sciences and foster curiosity among young minds, with a keen focus on ensuring representation of the marginalised and historically oppressed demographic of modern society. To this end, we recently facilitated an outreach workshop-style talk with a higher secondary private school located in India. The primary focus of the talk was on reinforcing the importance of women in STEM and tackling systemic biases faced by women in STEM or related fields, especially with Stimulus being women-driven.

However, during the pandemic, having a primarily online model of delivery since the inception of our organisation has certainly worked to our advantage. Some of the benefits include:

  1. Having a more close-knit, safe space for exchange of information and conceptualisation, with opportunities to monitor all communication, especially since we have several minors as part of our team working as volunteers
  2. Reducing uncertainty and safety issues related to travel, groundwork, implementation and delivery of our work, which otherwise would have been difficult with the current lack of adequate mechanisms in place and our limited capacity (being student-led), to ensure the safety of our volunteers
  3. Having a diverse and balanced team without geographical barriers, across age levels, gender identities and professional/academic advancements

We  realised the importance of disseminating science to young minds in a manner that makes them reflect on prejudices and existing gaps within their education system, which has primarily disproportionately promoted the work of men when it comes to the sciences. This was reiterated to the students by showing them pictures of various famous scientists, belonging to the same era and being parallel in terms of scientific accomplishment. Students became more receptive to and recognised the conflicts in terms of representation of women in STEM, despite being at par with their male counterparts, since the early days of science.

In addition, we also had extremely thought-provoking questions asked to us, related to what perpetuates such biases, tackling preconceived gender norms in a South Asian society and linking these deep-rooted societal issues to further delve into understanding how the human brain works and how humans process emotions or behaviours, thus establishing a direct link between science and its implications in society.

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