A Slice of What Education Looks Like in Pandemic America

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For almost a year, public school districts across the country have grappled with the daunting challenge of educating children in the midst of a pandemic. The strategies they have used are as varied as the political viewpoints, economics and demographics of the country itself. Policy is shaped by those very factors.

The New York Times’s National desk wanted to understand the different ways that schools were teaching and the circumstances facing students and educators.

“That sounds like a simple goal, but it’s really complicated because there are 13,000 school districts in America,” Jim Dao, deputy National editor, said.

In coordination with two fellow editors, Scott Dodd and Clinton Cargill, Mr. Dao dispatched journalists to follow seven school districts. The results are in a special report published Thursday.

The Times profiled public schools in Edison, N.J.; Cherokee County, Ga.; Wausau, Wis.; Providence, R.I.; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and the Roosevelt Independent School District near Lubbock, Texas. The stories, which appear as discrete pieces online, are packaged together in one print section.

“It’s always true in this country: If you’re going to public school, where you live determines your schooling experiences,” said Kate Taylor, an education reporter who observed Providence Public Schools, about an hour from her Boston-area home. “And those can be very, very different.”

In some cases, those differences are obvious: a big city versus a rural area, or a district relying on remote learning versus one that’s using a mix of remote and in-person classrooms. The idiosyncrasies of each district revealed to reporters compelling and unexpected elements inside the broader story.

For example, Washington, D.C., like many urban school districts, has held remote classes since March. So the Times reporter Abby Goodnough sought to examine the efforts being made to re-engage disaffected students. Much of Julie Bosman’s reporting in Wausau focused on how the district has toggled between remote and in-person learning because of a politically divided school board. In the Roosevelt Independent School District in Texas, remote learning wasn’t working, so the district scrapped it.

“You have to go to the classroom, or you have to go to a different district,” J. David Goodman, the reporter who covered Roosevelt, said.

Growing evidence bears out that school buildings are unlikely to seed coronavirus transmission when community spread is at moderate or low levels, provided that mitigation strategies, including adherence to social distancing and mask requirements, are implemented. Still, in-person schooling is not without risk, reporters found.

As the virus crept into all corners of the country last year, fears of infection took a more dominant hold in urban centers like San Diego, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, which have relied heavily on remote learning.

Jennifer Medina, who covered the Los Angeles Unified School District, said the issues plaguing it were emblematic of many urban districts with similar demographics.

“This just gets to the virus in general. There’s such a big divide of who’s feeling it and who isn’t,” said Ms. Medina, who lives in the city. “It’s so glaringly clear that the kids who need the most help have the least access to it.”

Yet Providence, where district students are predominantly poor and Latino, is an outlier. More than 70 percent of students returned to their classrooms this fall.

“I wanted to answer this question of why so many students came back in Providence when they didn’t in so many other cities,” Ms. Taylor said.

The answers, it turned out, were complex and multifaceted. And the task of determining what conclusions should be drawn was a feat all its own.

“No single piece explains what’s going on,” Mr. Dao said. “But if you look at them together, we hope you’ll get a clearer sense of how the nation as a whole is educating students in the pandemic.”

Although circumstances and solutions across school districts vary widely, a common reaction became apparent: an intractable worry about the long-term and, as of yet, unknown consequences the disruption of education will have on a generation of children.

“This isn’t the sort of thing that the moment classrooms open back up, everything is going to be back to normal,” Ms. Medina said. “This is going to have reverberations for years.”

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