Education in the U.S. during the COVID-19 Pandemic --Individual Needs and Educational Gaps - Papers & Essays



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Education in the U.S. during the COVID-19 Pandemic --Individual Needs and Educational Gaps


In 2020, while the news reported schools' shut-down due to the spread of COVID-19 all over the world, US schools also closed or switched to online teaching/learning from mid-March to April. When the new school year began in September of 2020, most schools in the U.S. faced serious challenges in supporting students' learning and academic experiences because of the inability to provide in-person learning. In this report, I report students' learning experiences during the pandemic and educational issues that have been increasingly visible in the U.S. To do so, I will bring examples through our children's experiences at the schools they attend in Rhode Island. This report focuses on two themes: individual needs and educational gaps. I would like to note that school policies and curricula in public schools in the US differ significantly depending on states and regions. This is because public schools in the US are not federally managed but are under the jurisdictions of each state or district. It is important to note that the examples reported here reflect experiences in one school district in Rhode Island, a small state located on the East coast, and are not generalizable to others.

From school closure to online learning

Due to increasing cases of COVID-19 infections, the public schools where my sons attend (my older son was in high school and the younger one was in elementary school) closed for a week at the end of March 2020. Then the schools moved to online teaching/learning and continued it until the end of June, the end of the school year. It was quite surprising to see that all of their classes were able to transition to online formats after only a week of intensive training provided for teachers. Of course, things did not go as smoothly as expected for the first few weeks. However, in my view, they had relatively smooth transitions to online teaching/learning, perhaps because they could build on the foundation they already had, such as teachers' and students' previous experiences of utilizing computers. The small size of the schools, having about 250 students in one grade, also has made the transition relatively less challenging. My older son was a ninth-grader at that time,*1 and the school had provided a laptop computer (Chromebook) to all students since he was in sixth grade.

Commonly, US teachers in elementary schools don't use textbooks. Teachers usually choose or create their teaching materials and assignments. Some teachers may consult with other teachers in the same grade and use similar materials. But in most cases, the individual teacher can decide how to teach and what to use. As a result, students at the same school may not necessarily learn through the same materials. At the schools where my children attend, teachers are also expected to create learning platforms such as google classrooms. Even before 2020, my older son daily used a laptop provided by his school to check materials and submit assignments online. Therefore, teachers and students were already accustomed to online teaching and learning. My younger son was in grade four at that time, and he also frequently had classes using computers, including researching in the library. His school also lent a laptop computer when it transitioned to online teaching/learning. The district also provided free Wi-Fi to support the households without internet. In the beginning, there were various issues, such as difficulties connecting to the video conference system (Zoom). Overall, the schools were quick to make changes by responding to the needs and concerns raised by parents and students and were able to continue online teaching/learning until the end of the school year.

The new school year during the COVID-19 pandemic

Usually, the new school year begins at the end of August after two months of summer break. However, because the district spent time providing training for teachers and rearranging classrooms (e.g., desk arrangement) to minimize risks associated with COVID-19, the new academic year started in the middle of September 2020. Students at my younger son's school were allowed to attend school every day under the conditions of sanitizing the school buildings, mask-wearing, social distancing, ventilation, and thorough hand washing. They switched back to in-person teaching considering various challenges faced by younger students to learn from home. On the contrary, it was decided that high school students attend two days a week. They made this judgment because the classrooms were not large enough to accommodate all high school students. While it varies across states, compulsory education continues until students turn sixteen or eighteen years old. Therefore, attendance at high school is usually mandatory. Usually, there are no examinations to enter public high schools, and most students attend local schools. However, within schools, there are different levels and types of classes available to students depending on their academic proficiencies. At my son's high school, English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Physical Education are required subjects. Based on their interests, students can also select courses from various elective subjects such as foreign language (Spanish, French, Latin, and Chinese), music, art, computer science, business, and liberal arts (psychology, sociology, etc.). Students can only take about one to two elective courses per year because there are required courses. Students have an individualized class schedule and move from one classroom to another where teachers are teaching the subject. Because all students transfer from one classroom to another, about three hundred high school students were divided into two groups to ensure safety. The first group attended school on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and the second group attended on Thursdays and Fridays to receive in-person learning. On Mondays, each group alternated to attend school. Those who decided not to attend could take classes or participated in discussions from home using Zoom. This hybrid style of learning continued from September of 2020 to the spring of next year. Other districts also used a similar system and reduced the number of students attending school. To reduce risks further, some school districts alternated students on a bi-weekly basis. With this, if there were students who tested positive, the students in the same group would learn at home for the next two weeks, and the risk of being infected or spreading was considered mitigated.

Choices and personal needs

The in-person or hybrid classes continued for almost 8 months. Schools also offered students and families choices in various ways by respecting their personal needs. It was up to the families to decide whether children attend a school or not. The schools respected families who felt uncomfortable sending their children to school due to their health risks (e.g., asthma) or having a high-risk family member (e.g., elderly people). In my younger son's class which had 22 students, half decided not to attend in-person learning and chose to attend online classes through Zoom from home. Their reasons for choosing remote learning varied. Some decided to do so to allow their children to spend more time doing what they like to do, and some respected their children's decisions. But the majority seemed to choose an online option to reduce the risk of being infected. Those who chose not to attend school could change their decisions if they changed their mind or their situations changed. This seemed to align with other school practices in the U.S. where choice and flexibility are valued or expected.

There are various choices in US schools compared to Japanese schools. In most public schools, students don't have uniforms and there are generally few rules on what to wear. In our children's district, students can go to school by riding a school bus, biking, walking, driving, or getting a ride. In elementary and middle school, students can decide whether to participate in a club/extracurricular program or not. If they do, they can choose one or several from various options. Students can choose to bring their lunch or order one at school (Lunch is provided free of cost to students with limited financial resources). If one chooses to order lunch, then there are usually two to three menus to choose from. Twice a day, there are snack times and students can bring anything, such as fruits, crackers, and cookies. These choices help to respond to the needs, customs, and values of families from diverse backgrounds.

There is research demonstrating how choices influence people's behavior and how such behaviors differ depending on cultures. Sheena Iyengar conducted several experimental studies.*2 In one study, lower grade elementary school students were given tests to do wordplay. The contents of the tests were similar for everyone, but the way of giving choices was different and randomly selected depending on the children. There were three patterns of choice: children chose their favorite word category (e.g., bird) and a pen to use; the researcher chose a word category and a pen to use; children were given a word category and a pen to use and were told that their mothers chose them. The results demonstrated that Anglo -American students, on average, showed the best scores when they were given their own choices. Children whose pens and word categories were selected by the researcher and their mothers received lower scores and did not continue to play for long. Iyengar suspects that feeling forced by others, especially by a parent, negatively impacted these children's motivation and psychological states. However, when the same experiment was conducted with Asian immigrant children (Japanese and Chinese) in the US, the result was significantly different. Children with the mothers' choices of word and pen showed the highest scores and continued the task longer. Iyengar believes that Asian immigrant children do not regard mothers' choosing on behalf of them as constraints as much as Anglo American children do.

If having choices leads to US children's increased learning motivation and achievement, it is understandable why choices and personal needs are valued in US schools. Our research*3 also demonstrated a cultural difference related to values on education and school. In this study, we asked Chinese immigrant and European American parents about their views of "high-quality preschools." When we analyzed and coded their free responses, both groups stressed the quality of teachers most. Chinese immigrant parents, however, valued more and provided more detailed descriptions of the teachers' experiences, qualifications, and characters more than European American parents. European American parents tended to value "self-directed learning with choices," "responding to children's needs," and "being receptive to families (e.g., listening to parents' opinions; inviting parents as volunteers)" as necessary elements of high-quality preschools more than Chinese immigrant parents. While Chinese immigrant parents tended to trust preschool teachers to make important decisions, European American parents regarded preschools as high quality when they provide more choices and are responsive to the needs of children and families. In this study, we asked parents about preschools, but we suspect that a similar cultural pattern will emerge even if we ask parents about elementary schools.

Responding to individual needs in students' educational processes connects with the practices of inclusive education. In the U.S., for students with disabilities such as learning disabilities, parents/guardians, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and a specialist are required to work together and provide services and accommodations that meet the needs of the students. This process is mandated by federal law. Parents and children have the right to receive free, appropriate public education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, in my son's high school, students with special needs could attend school every day. The school made this decision by considering that they should provide professional support and learning arrangements needed by students with special needs and their families.

Gaps in educational opportunity

The practice of providing differentiated and often individualized educational opportunities reflects values placed on equity more than equality. Treating all children in the same way is perceived to ignore individual children's diverse needs and make it difficult to provide a "good" education for children. Scholars often use the picture below to explain the difference between equality and equity in educational contexts. The left picture suggests equality, while the right one suggests equity. Allocating and providing different degrees of resources depending on individual children's needs is considered fair and an effective practice that maximizes most students' learning.

Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.

However, a heavy emphasis on educational equity has a pitfall. Providing differentiated learning also has a risk of widening gaps in educational opportunities. Providing specialized or differentiated education is extended to learning opportunities for so-called gifted children who are defined as those "with gifts and talents perform--or have the capability to perform--at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains." Many public schools provide special classes for a subject like mathematics for such students, starting from a lower grade. In these classes, students learn more advanced contents that are not covered in regular classes. Schools provide these classes based on a belief that gifted children tend to be bored and lose motivation in regular classes, and it is critical to offer classes that stimulate their intellectual abilities. For similar reasons, many states in the U.S. also allow students to skip grades.

Although this arrangement honors individual needs, research shows that enrollment in gifted classes is significantly associated with students' racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. A significant number of studies demonstrate that Anglo-American students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds tend to be more enrolled in these classes than racial minority students. Usually, enrollment in gifted programs is not solely based on students' standardized test scores. In many cases, teachers make assessments and recommendations. Thus, research suggests that cultural biases may influence the judgment and assessment of Anglo-American teachers, the majority of teachers in public schools when they evaluate minority students' abilities.*4 The characteristics of gifted children include exceptional language skills, mental abilities such as problem-solving and memory, reading and writing skills, and a strong sense of curiosity from a young age. Given that research demonstrates that home environments tend to impact young children's learning interests and performance, family backgrounds are likely to influence what they list as characteristics of gifted children.

One of the central issues is that such differentiated educational opportunities are likely to impact students' later academic achievement. As more advanced academic contents are taught in gifted programs, it is difficult for students in regular classes to move to gifted programs later. Research also shows that classes based on ability grouping lead to different levels of teacher expectations and teaching methods, which create widened gaps in learning motivation and academic performance among students.*5 An achievement gap has been one of the most serious educational issues in the U.S. Providing optimal education for individual students while reducing opportunity gaps associated with racial or family backgrounds has been a challenge to schools and policymakers.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed educational inequalities that exist in the US even more. Because all students received a computer from schools in our district, the transition went relatively smooth. Not all students received such support or resources. The funding source of public schools comes from the district and not federal in the U.S. Each school's budget usually depends on available resources in the district, largely determined by income from property tax. As a result, funding available to schools greatly varies depending on residential areas. Teaching materials (the federal government does not provide textbooks), school buildings, teachers' salaries, and extracurricular activities also significantly differ depending on financial resources available to schools. These differences create gaps in educational opportunities, which was raised as a central issue in the field of education even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March and April of 2020, many public schools in Rhode Island could not switch to online teaching/learning due to a lack of devices or internet access at homes. There were also other barriers and challenges, such as parents' loss of jobs due to the pandemic and associated stress. Some students did not have space to study with many family members living in the same household. Some students took care of younger siblings while their parents worked. Online learning from home presented various challenges for students and families, especially those with financial difficulties. How can schools meet diverse students' needs and support students' education while ensuring safety during the COVID-19 pandemic? The pandemic highlighted educational inequalities in the U.S. and challenges in pursuit of educational equity.


  • *1 Elementary school has five grades, followed by middle school (6th-8th grade) and high school (9th-12th grade) in this school district.
  • *2 Iyengar, Sheena. 2010. The Art of Choosing. New York & Boston, MA: Twelve.
  • *3 Yamamoto, Yoko, and Li, Jin. 2012. "What makes a high-quality preschool? Similar and different views among Chinese immigrant and European American parents." Early Childhood Research Quarterly 27: 306-315.
  • *4 For example, see Ford, Dana Y., Grantham, Terek C., and Whiting, Gilman W. 2008. "Culturally and linguistically diverse students in gifted education: Recruitment and retention issues." Exceptional Children 74(3): 289-306.
  • *5 Good, Thomas L. 2014. "What do we know about how teachers influence student performance on standardized tests: And why do we know so little about other student outcomes?" Teachers College Record 116(1). Available at ID Number: 17289.
yoko-yamamoto.jpg Yoko Yamamoto
A faculty member of the Department of Education at Brown University. Her research focuses on education, family, and child development in contexts (e.g., gender, social stratification, culture). She also directs a research project on the socialization and educational processes of preschool to elementary school-aged children in Japan and the US.

(Titles and affiliations are as of the time of publication.)