Pandemic lessons 1: Explanandum

For three years, from January 2020 to December 2022, the United States fed its most vulnerable school-age children better than it educated them. This isn’t hard to see: after the pandemic began closing schools in early 2022, schools gained permission and figured out how to shift from in-school feeding to grab-and-go meals. In contrast, there have been large questions about both the extent of promised and required special education services that schools failed to provide, and the ways that students with disabilities have been more vulnerable to the damages of the pandemic than nondisabled peers.

But this set of stories is not just about this comparison, between a successful pandemic pivot and substantial failures. This set of stories raises a larger question about what happened with education since the arrival of SARS-CoV-2. For me, as an historian, I have wrestled with what is that larger question, what needs to be explained.

Since the start of the pandemic, I have had the luxury of trying to protect myself and family members in relative economic security, and without the need before COVID vaccines to put myself or others at significant risk. I never needed to fret about the right decisions for younger children in the middle of a pandemic, or myself. For 2020, in my last year as a college administrator, my focus at work was largely to support my peers and our students. While I wrote one blog piece that first pandemic summer, and a second about reopening in April 2021, I largely mulled over the historical issues in private. But mulling proceeded, and this entry is the first in a set of five or so pieces on pandemic lessons from a broader historical perspective, thinking about education in a pandemic as a set of systemic responses.

But what precisely are we looking at, and trying to explain? Many things in the pandemic that shaped education came at a distance: the virus itself, national policies and international efforts (and the lack thereof in many cases). One can catalog all of the horrible and wonderful decisions that happened: WHO’s failure to acknowledge aerosol transmission for months; the lying of national leaders from Xi Jinping to Jair Bolsonaro to Donald Trump; regional leaders making cavil decisions that killed people, especially the elderly (Andrew Cuomo and Doug Ducey, for example); the hundreds of thousands of health care workers who put their lives on the line to support their neighbors as they were in distress and dying; the leaders of vaccine efforts.

And schools were a part of all that followed. Those external events and forces were absolutely a part of what happened in education since the start of 2020. But we can and should understand schools better when we look at them as institutions with specific social positions. Yes, both schools and retail establishments engaged in hygiene theater with plexiglass barriers, surface sanitation beyond all reason, and also denials and conflicts affecting both. But schools play a unique role, and deserve some attention.

And they are also going to differ — partly at age level, with different pandemic experiences in early childhood education, K-12, and higher education; significantly in their surrounding communities (poverty vs. wealth, political environments); and in other ways. Yet they have an overlapping purpose captured in the term education.

So this is the explanandum, the thing to be explained: what happened in education since January 2020 because it’s education?