Pandemic lessons 2: Phenomena

Well over a million Americans dead. Formal schooling disrupted for months, and in many cases several years. Mental health challenges and the emergence of a virulent culture war aimed at multiple levels of education. This has been the pandemic experience for millions of children, college students, and their families. Future historians will have a longer-term perspective on the visceral experience of generations touched by the pandemic. But we also do not need to wait to have a little bit of perspective, both on the experiences of millions of Americans and also education systems. This blog post is the second in a series on pandemic education, and focuses on those systems.

At a broad level, American education has experienced at least three large patterns since the start of 2020: institutional erosion in terms of both enrollment and institutional stability, the quick evolution of a default reportoire of institutional responses during the pandemic, and the evolution of a pandemic dramaturgy (or a significant part of the pandemic dramaturgy that became associated with schooling). These patterns should not obscure the existence of many individual or local efforts excluded from this description. But when I ask, how will historians look at education in the COVID-19 pandemic, they will see idiosyncratic responses and also these very large-scale patterns.

Institutional erosion

Educational institutions eroded in two significant ways with the pandemic. First, enrollment dropped for at least several years in both K-12 and higher education. In K-12, the enrollment decline was most concentrated in kindergarten. But that is where it was most obvious, most intense. Recently, Tom Dee has explained why he is concerned with a post-pandemic-recovery discourse that tends to ignore those who have left schooling. In a different direction, there has also been an the increase in homeschooling among Black families, tied to a widespread distrust of and disconnection from schools that do not serve them well.

In higher education, community colleges have experienced the greatest enrollment drop, though enrollment stabilized this year. There are other colleges and universities under pressure with declining enrollment — with the California State University system as one very large example — and as with the K-12 system, the decline is a reflection of both pandemic dynamics and also changing demographics with the shrinking of the American population under 25 years old.

Beyond enrollment, there has also been the erosion of financial stability. Financial concerns at community colleges, small private liberal arts colleges, and regional state universities are the most obvious signs of this stability, but parents of young children would have a good case that the temporary and sometimes permanent closures of child care affected them greatly. Beyond the often-fragmented databases of individual states, Emma Lee and Zachary Parolin used anonymized mobile cell data to document the closure of the majority of child care centers in spring 2020, about half of whom had stayed closed a year later. The various economic support packages of the federal government in 2020 and 2021 provided significant financial support, especially for K-12 public schools and colleges and universities, in many cases more than with the Great Recession. Speaking more generally about support for families, the temporary drop in child poverty was a significant policy accomplishment during the first two years of the pandemic, largely a result of the temporarily-expanded child tax credit. But that general and generous support may not be enough to buffer many schools in the long term, especially for both early childhood education and higher education.

Default repertoire

After the initial widespread closures of schools in late winter 2020, schools responded in a broad variety of ways, but my strong impression is that by the 2020-21 academic year, school responses sorted quickly into a set of default options that dominated the landscape of American education. Schooling was either remote or in-person or in an awkward hybrid, and in-person or hybrid was either with or without the installation of plexiglass shields and extreme surface sanitation we would now consider hygiene theater. For emergency remote schooling, schools often chose internet platforms such as Zoom or Google Classroom, platforms that required students to have a level of internet connectivity that millions of families did not have just months earlier… or at the start of the fall 2020 semester.

I collectively call these choices a default repertoire of responses because they quickly became a dominant template of what schools could do in a pragmatic sense. Some of those pragmatic choices depended on regulatory changes (such as the US Department of Agriculture, which gave a waiver to school meal program arrangements so that K-12 schools could provide grab-and-go meals to families they served). Some depended on funding and an entirely new set of operations, such as the provision of computers and hotspots to students and families that did not have broadband Internet. But I am seeing the default repertoire as something beyond that, a collective mental set of choices that dominated practices and local policies.

We can see this default repertoire in action by understanding what did not happen in 2020-21. In some cases, there was nominal support or funding (or both) for institutional responses, where those responses turned out to be idiosyncratic. One example would be high-recruitment summer programs in 2021. By February or March 2021, there was both funding and a clear need for a variety of summer programs, and I predicted that we would learn a great deal about parental priorities from their responses. That prediction assumed that school districts would operate summer programs at a level at least a magnitude larger than what had typically happened before COVID, and several educators told me point-blank that there was no chance of districts recruiting enough academic-subject teachers to run a large summer program.

My friendly critics were correct, and I was not. Summer 2021 did not witness a flowering of very large programs that were academic in nature … or other summer programs, either. From the federal School Pulse Panel survey that began in the 2021-22 school year, we know that for responding schools in June 2022, about a third had planned more summer 2022 programming that would be required for some students, with similar proportions for reporting greater summer programming with partner organizations, bridge programs, and so forth. By when schools reported back in September on what happened, a small proportion of schools reported very high engagement: for any of the summer programming categories, fewer than 5% of schools reported that a majority of their students attended, and 85% of responding schools in September 2022 reported no more than 25% attendance.

There is less information about how K-12 school districts or colleges responded to funding to improve indoor air quality. While the World Health Organization lagged in its recognition that COVID-19 is transmitted primarily through indoor aerosols, there were several very loud voices in the U.S. trying to explain that COVID has indoor aerosol transmission. And federal COVID funding made clear that school districts absolutely could use ESSER funding to improve air filtration and air quality in general. But I have not seen many examples of air quality improvements implemented at scale. I know Denver’s public schools announced an air quality initiative, as did Boston, and there is now a live dashboard of air quality in Boston’s schools. But widescale capital investments in air quality would have been reported early for ESSER spending at least in a few ways (some part of the contracting process), and I don’t think that has happened. Some of the lag may be in the nature of capital contracting, and the supply chain woes evident in so many parts of the economy. But at least as far as I can tell, indoor air quality have not yet became a primary priority of school districts (or charter schools) nationwide.1

The record in higher education is also uneven. Some large universities have had the resources, flexibility, and managerial competence to boost air filtration, and announced it as such; at least as measured by my portable CO2 monitor (a very idiosyncratic proxy), that’s been the case at my own university, Arizona State. But as in K-12, I have not seen evidence of widespread commitment to improved air quality as a response to COVID-19.

A third path not taken is significant differentiation in who returned to in-person K-12 schooling in 2020-21. In summer 2020, Sarah Cohodes proposed one version of differentiation in The Atlantic (among other places), to speed the in-person return of younger children, as well as students whose education was more vulnerable, including students with disabilities and English learners as important populations to prioritize. In some cases, there was a version of differentiation: one classroom teacher told me of a district that required students with disabilities to be in person for any specialized services.2 In a personal communication, Professor Cohodes said that she received few inquiries, and no district followed up in implementing that idea. Fully remote, fully in-person, awkward hybrids, with or without hygiene theater: not significant differentiation.

Finally, the dominant practice of school districts around the country was to use an Internet platform for remote schooling — Zoom, Google Classroom, or something similar. Other technologies, including an old one almost universally available to families, were ignored. There had been a few school districts who in spring had distributed worksheet packets in spring as an emergency measure, but the discussion around remote schooling in fall defaulted to platforms that were accessible to families who had broadband internet access. Since millions of families and also college students had limited or no easy Internet access at home, K-12 school districts and colleges and universities spent billions of dollars and millions of hours providing students with devices and hotspots (with access the districts and institutions of higher education paid for). By late summer 2022, more than 90% of K-12 public schools reported on the School Pulse Panel that they provided individual devices to families, close to half provided support for internet access at home, and a little over half provided internet access outside school but not necessarily for individual households (i.e., in neighborhood locations).

As far as I am aware, no school district designed any significant part of connecting with students through the one technology that was familiar to all Americans before the pandemic, and was pretty close to the enacted experience of millions: the telephone. Yes, the telephone, either landline or cell phone. How many teachers experienced an entire class of black Zoom boxlets because all of their students turned off cameras, and how different was that from a teleconference line (other than the depressing experience of being promised they could see student faces and then seeing none)? I will try to avoid evaluating that decision to choose Internet platforms over telephony, but what is clear is that the decision was universal, and connecting for instruction through the telephone was never considered as a systematic option. The exclusion of plans to use telephone conferencing from school district responses is evidence of the power of default repertoires.

Astute readers might recognize that pandemic-era default repertoires look like the instantaneous version of the grammar of schooling as described by Tyack and Cuban. But that comparison would miss the difference between the early evolution of school practices and the deeply-embedded politics of long-term practices, which the grammar of schooling captures as a generalized cultural norm. What happened since 2020 has been about both internal dynamics and also what was politically feasible. Consider Cohodes’s proposal for differentiated return to in-person schooling. What would have made that feasible, and what kept it off the table? Part was absolutely the need to rethink organizational structures like school building use and the boundaries of expertise among educators. The way that the grammar of schooling became part of the default repertoire was in setting up limits to experimentation, even in an emergency — parents of adolescents pressured schools to return a significant part of their children’s pre-pandemic lives.

Pandemic education dramaturgy

The last widescale pattern was the strength of the pandemic dramaturgy built around education — connected with but not entirely consistent with the lived experiences of educators, students, and their families. Some decades ago, historian Charles Rosenberg argued that the social experience of pandemics has consistently included a dramaturgical dimension. Focusing on HIV, Rosenberg pointed out the way that social discourses had followed an episodic structure (what Rosenberg called acts, as in a play). Rosenberg’s student Keith Wailoo discussed this in his 2022 appearance on the podcast Infectious Historians. And Wailoo is correct in terms of the dramaturgical dimension to the COVID-19 pandemic, the way that social discussion of the pandemic has followed but not entirely reproduced the epidemiological experiences.

That dramaturgy is clearly evident in the educational experiences of the pandemic thus far. One might divide the episodes differently, from trauma in spring 2020 through the present. One piece of evidence is the eruption of education culture wars since 2021, which became wrapped up in the discourse around the pandemic, with many attacking public school systems both for putatively teaching critical race theory and also for mask mandates. Added March 23, 2023: I am hesitant to suggest the shape of this dramaturgy–historians are pretty bad at short-term judgments of this nature, and some say we should avoid periodization at all–but for those who want to know some specifics, here is my first impression for the two years after the pandemic changed lives for all Americans:

  • Panicked closure (spring 2020)
  • Racial reckoning and uncertainty (summer 2020)
  • Churning and moral calming (fall 2020)
  • Restlessness and dread and divergence (Winter 2020-spring 2021)
  • Delta, dividing narratives and the rise of the right (summer-fall 2021)
  • Omicron chaos (December 2021-February 2022)

Limitations of the description of these patterns

In this blog entry, I have painted with a very broad brush, and in doing so I know I am missing important parts of the educational experience of the pandemic. I have not touched on so-called pandemic pods, for example, or the waiver of GRE requirements for graduate school, early childhood tele-intervention experimentation in Kentucky, my own college’s establishment of a program to connect college students as tutors with a range of K-12 students, or the debates around the country on the role of School Resource Officers as competing with mental health supports. One of my colleagues, Punya Mishra, has been involved in a podcast series that has captured many of the more creative responses, Silver Lining for Learning, and I highly recommend it.

Despite that limitation, attempting to identify larger systematic patterns is essential to understanding what has happened in education because it is education and not health care, law enforcement, etc. The next blog entry will turn to the longer history of American education, and how that may have played into the patterns described here.


  1. The School Pulse Panel data is depressing on this point: while about 80% of school reported increasing handwashing and hand sanitation in 2021-22, and also surface cleaning, only 53% paid attention to “increased ventilation,” a broad category. The 2022-23 follow-up surveys is a bit of confirmation of my skepticism: 67% of schools reporting having “inspected and validated current HVAC” systems, 29% replaced or upgraded them, and the survey did not ask about indoor air quality monitoring. []
  2. Providing limits on services was not what Cohodes proposed! []