While students grapple with solutions of their own, it's vital that school administrators, educators and even state and federal legislators think broadly about how to address the gaping holes that the Covid-19 and its aftermath have exposed.
Any sort of large-scale educational reformation requires a functioning university system -- and if there is one thing the pandemic laid bare, it's just how many institutions of higher learning are falling short.
One reason may be public colleges' lack of sufficient funding -- a problem only exacerbated by the economic fallout from the pandemic. Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at New America, explains that with states facing significant budgetary shortfalls this year, public colleges will be contending with an even more precarious financial reality. And if the past recession is any indication, they may see jumps in student enrollment, as many unemployed adults return to school to learn new skills.
If public colleges are to continue to educate almost three-quarters of Americans who attend university, then a "federal investment that helps states weather the storm in the short-term, but ensures long-term funding from both the states and the federal government, has never been more important," says McCann.
Another option is for Congress to provide additional funding to community colleges, which also play an integral role in preparing Americans for the workforce. After the Great Recession, the federal government created the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program, providing almost $2 billion of additional funding to community colleges to retrain workers for the new economy.
Research at New America shows that this program was quite successful. Their analysis found that students who partook in the TAACCCT program were 30% more likely "to have positive labor market outcomes than comparison students." McCann argues a similar program could be implemented now to assist unemployed Americans of all ages gain new skills and credentials for the post-Covid world.
But what relief can the government offer O'Reilly and the many students who have just graduated school with significant debt, but limited -- if any -- employment prospects? One option is to reduce the burden of student loan debt, an idea popularized by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when they were running for president and one which Warren resurfaced again during the pandemic.
While Democrats have put forth multiple plans around student loan relief, few beyond the Cares Act, which suspended payment and interest on federal loans through the end of September as a consequence of the pandemic, have passed.
However, Roopika Risam, associate professor of secondary and higher education at Salem State University, doesn't think that means Democrats should stop trying to push for debt forgiveness. If a Republican-led Senate is unwilling to take any major action, she says they could consider debt relief for all essential workers, whether current students or recent graduates. It is "the least the US can do to recognize their sacrifices," she writes.
Astra Taylor, co-founder of the Debt Collective, an activist group, believes there is a simple economic argument to be made in favor of large-scale student loan forgiveness -- and one that might persuade some Republicans who are focused on restarting the economy. According to the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College, broad student debt cancelation could provide a significant boost to the GDP -- somewhere between $86 billion and $108 billion per year. And the reason is clear, Taylor says: "All the money currently sent to loan servicers would be freed up," increasing recent graduates' spending on everything from cars to homes to starting businesses.
Debt relief has an added benefit -- narrowing the racial wealth gap. Economist Marshall Steinbaum says student debt is "a creature of this country's legacy of racial discrimination, segregation and economic disadvantage patterned by race." In other words, Black students, on average, take on more debt to go to school, but when they graduate, they face significant wage disparities compared to their White counterparts, one factor that could make it difficult for them to pay down those debts.
In a moment when the country is reckoning with ways to dismantle institutionalized racism, debt relief could be an ideal place to take concrete action.
The pandemic poses a risk not just for recent graduates, but for the many students who must return to school this fall. And since Covid-19 will likely be an issue come September, teachers must consider how they design lesson plans for their students -- taking into account the challenges of the spring semester.
As schools across the country transitioned to online learning in late March and early April, many teachers and students struggled to adapt to the virtual environment. Teachers had designed curriculum for face-to-face learning, and students -- assuming they had access to online classes -- were ill-prepared for this style of instruction.
One approach -- that allows for the flexibility of moving between in-class instruction and virtual learning -- is "resilient pedagogy," which is based on the architectural concept of "resilient design," in which structures are designed to be responsive to their changing environments. David Perry, a senior academic adviser in the history department at the University of Minnesota, says that this begins with "the assumption that everyone is going to need maximum flexibility.... when it comes to deciding how to learn, and maximum patience, trust, and care from professors, staff and peers alike."
Joshua Eyler, director of faculty development at the University of Mississippi, says that rather than having the professor present a poem in class and spending the remainder of the session interpreting it, students would be required to read the poem and answer a set of analytical questions in advance of the class. This additional preparation creates an environment where students do more work on the front end, so the class -- in whatever form it takes -- is less about learning new material and more about analyzing and dissecting it, a process that can easily be adapted to multiple settings.
But this requires both resilient students and faculty. For students, Eyler says, this means they need guidance in how to excel in online coursework, and for faculty, this means "they need opportunities to learn about engaging teaching strategies that work" outside the usual classroom setting.