President-elect Joe Biden’s acceptance speech offered U.S. teachers a bit of cheer in what has been an undeniably dismal year. “For American educators, this is a great day for you all. You’re going to have one of your own in the White House,” a beaming Biden said, referring to the next First Lady, Jill Biden, a community college professor and member of the National Education Association.
With that, Biden opened the door to educators’ hopes that his administration will take a hands-on approach to help schools manage through the pandemic, as new COVID-19 cases delay in-person learning and threaten the futures of a generation of kids. But with hope comes expectations and pressure to do more than just get children back inside classrooms. The pandemic has brought into full view an unequal educational system that existed long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, and experts say this is a chance to fix it.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher for kids. It’s their futures that are on the line. And the projections around learning loss are staggering, and we know they won’t be evenly distributed,” says Robin Lake, director of the nonpartisan Center on Reinventing Public Education. “What that means for kids is their future job opportunities and ability to be successful in life will be sacrificed if we, the adults, don’t pull it together for them.”
Millions of children have been learning remotely for months, and some of the most marginalized students no doubt have lost contact with their districts entirely and received little to no education since March. The pandemic is worsening educational disparities, widening gaps between low-income and affluent families, between white students and students of color, and between well-resourced and underserved school districts.
In October, an analysis of 106 school district plans found that 55% were planning to be in-person by November. But several school districts, from Washington, D.C. to Minneapolis to San Diego, recently delayed plans to bring students back to classrooms because of rising coronavirus cases.
Epidemiologists and educational equity advocates are hoping that the new administration will provide specific, consistent guidelines for reopening schools, push for more relief funding for schools, increase testing and contact tracing, give educators guidance on best-practices for remote and hybrid learning, and work to close the digital divide.
“Other countries are doing those kinds of things, and we should be too,” Lake says.
That will require a lot of catching up. For months, President Trump has downplayed the severity of the virus and demanded that schools reopen for in-person instruction. But the lack of clear national school guidance or sufficient testing has resulted in a patchwork of approaches from districts left to figure out solutions on their own.
“You can’t blurt out, ‘Reopen schools,’ and then not provide a roadmap or resources for how to do it,” says Joseph Allen, associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who has published guidelines on school reopening. “When Trump did that, it was almost immediate. All of a sudden, reopening schools became politicized.” Studies show that school reopening plans broke along political lines, with schools more likely to open in-person in counties that supported Trump in 2016.
Biden has criticized Trump’s “chaotic and politicized response” and said schools need “clear, consistent, effective national guidelines, not mixed messages and political ultimatums,” arguing that the “current lack of clarity is paralyzing for schools.”
The president-elect has said his administration will ramp up testing and contact tracing, and instruct the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide clear guidance on when to open or close schools and how to make classrooms safe. He will also call on Congress to pass a relief bill to give schools and childcare providers funding they need to adapt during the pandemic, including reconfiguring classrooms, improving ventilation within buildings and supplying masks and other protective gear to students and teachers. But that is likely to be an uphill battle if the Senate remains in Republican control.
House Democrats passed an updated relief bill in October, which would give $175 billion to K-12 schools, but the package has stalled in the Senate without Republican support. With state governments projected to lose more than $500 billion due to a drop in tax revenue that is likely to force education budget cuts, Democrats and education advocates have argued that more federal funding is necessary to bridge that gap for schools.
“State and local governments are hurting,” says Whitney Robinson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. “We need an infusion of funding for schools.”
Biden has also said he will task the Department of Education with developing and sharing best practices for high-quality remote and hybrid learning, support research on how COVID-19 affects children and prioritize closing the gaps in educational opportunities.
Terra Wallin—who focuses on K-12 policy at the Education Trust, a nonprofit aimed at ending inequity in schools— says the impact of the pandemic has been “most viciously felt by lower income students of color,” and that districts have taken a range of approaches in trying to address the dual problems of equity and safety. “The federal government could certainly be doing more to lift up what those practices look like and provide standard guidance and support to help districts in making those decisions,” she says.
And as epidemiologists have been arguing since the pandemic started, turning the tide on school reopenings will likely require prioritizing school over other aspects of the economy. “It’s unconscionable that we have bars open in some cities when schools remain closed,” Allen says.
In New York City, home to the country’s largest school system, leaders have started to warn that all school buildings could soon have to shut down as coronavirus cases rise toward an average positivity rate of 3% — even as restaurants currently remain open for outdoor and limited indoor dining.
That’s a concession the Trump administration has been unwilling to make. The President and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos stoked backlash from teachers’ unions when they demanded that schools reopen for in-person instruction, despite unions’ fears that it would be unsafe without lower infection rates, improved testing and contact tracing and more protective equipment for school employees. Biden, who was endorsed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, has indicated he will work with them on reopening plans, noting they will have an advocate in the future First Lady.
“We’ve never said, ‘Don’t open the schools.’ We’ve said, ‘Provide these things, so we can open the schools,'” says Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “I have hope that we will be able to open our schools safely and equitably. I really do, for the first time in a long time.”
And while DeVos has said that it’s not up to the federal government to track school districts and their coronavirus infection rates, Pringle and others hope the Biden Administration will take on that role, whether it’s through the CDC or the Department of Education. “We have hundreds of thousands of experiments happening across the country,” Allen says. “And we should be learning from that.”
Until Biden takes office on Jan. 20, the lack of a coordinated system to help educators navigate the pandemic will plague teachers, students and school districts. But the steps Biden takes once he’s in the White House, experts say, will affect the U.S. education system long after the pandemic ends.
“The focus has to be on getting us back to school, but I don’t think that we should be focused on getting back to normal — because normal got us into this mess,” Lake says. “And that’s going to be the challenge that the Biden administration will have to engage with — how do we redefine normal, reimagine education at a very critical moment for our country?”
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com