Back-To-School & COVID-19: What’s unprecedented, and what’s not – Rebecca Buckham
Unprecedented times. How often have we heard that phrase during this year of global pandemic? These are indeed unprecedented times, a reality brought into even sharper focus by the start of the school year. As parents, teachers, and students return to very different learning environments, it’s hard to get excited about a new year when so many uncertainties remain.
What’s not unprecedented, however, is the experience of too many families challenged by poverty across our nation and state. For low-income families, the 2020–21 school year drives home the ongoing struggle for equal opportunity. As back-to-school season gets underway this September—also Hunger Awareness Month—we focus attention on the economic disparities that have become more pronounced due to COVID-19, and on what those disparities mean for school-aged children who do not have the resources to navigate the effects of ongoing health crisis.
In a June 24 message, state Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera remarked that “the closure of schools in spring 2020 creates a moral imperative to address existing, underlying inequities in our system of public education.”  Analysis of learning outcomes in the wake of COVID-19 school closures reveals such inequity: for example, one study concluded that while the average U.S. student could fall behind academically by seven months, “black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year.”  These trends play out across Pennsylvania, where the COVID-19 Response Task Force confirms a correlation between income inequality, racial injustice, and lack of access to basic needs such as food, housing, transportation, and healthcare.  While the morale booster that “we’re all in this together” is a helpful move toward solidarity, we shouldn’t forget that many in our communities will be in this much longer and harder than others.
But here’s what else is not unprecedented: the baptismal call of Christians to walk alongside the disadvantaged. Committed to addressing the disparities that COVID-19 has thrown into starker contrast, the ELCA calls us to advocate for economic policies that ensure “sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all.”  May we enter this season of learning with hope—not only for the prevention and treatment of coronavirus, but also for our conversations about how we can promote a more just economy. Students, teachers, and parents are all more likely to succeed when they aren’t worried about their next meal.
 PA Department of Education. (2020, June 24). Message from Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera. https://www.education.pa.gov/Schools/safeschools/emergencyplanning/COVID-19/messages/Pages/June24.aspx
 Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime
 DeJesus, I. (2020, August 13). Pa.’s Black and brown communities struggle more with coronavirus personally and economically: task force. PennLive. https://www.pennlive.com/news/2020/08/black-and-brown-communities-across-pa-see-higher-rates-of-infection-mortality-economic-challenges-task-force-report.html
 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1999). A Social Statement on: Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All. Retrieved from https://elca.org/Faith/Faith-and-Society/Social-Statements/Economic-Life
Rebecca Buckham is a member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Dillsburg, Lower Susquehanna Synod.