How to close the education gap that’s only widened since COVID-19

Press Play wraps up its week-long series on education in the time of COVID-19. Today’s focus: How the virus is expanding the already wide education gap between the rich and poor. Plus, what are some possible solutions to narrow that gap? 

KCRW hears from Paul Tough, author of “The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.” Also joining the conversation is Annette Anderson, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, where she works with the university’s Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. She’s also a former teacher and principal in Baltimore.

Anderson says that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the learning gap between the privileged and less privileged in K-12 schools. 

She says compared to independent schools, some public schools in vulnerable communities might have less access to robust teaching, resources and technology.

“There's this model of every kid in the United States in September sitting in front of a laptop or desktop computer with broadband and high-speed internet and multiple devices,” Anderson says. “I don't know that that is what we had this spring, and I don't know that we have invested enough to be able to get to some model like that in the fall.”

She says that some schools are also sources of food and health care for some families. 

“There’s concern that schools are going to be trying to perform Herculean tasks with fewer resources. We just want to make sure that every kid in the country has an equitable shot, so that we don't have any delays down the lane for all kids.”

Tough says that the gap also exists in higher education, including admissions. 

He says that as institutions face state budget cuts, schools are providing less financial aid. That means students without the financial means to support themselves might be hit harder than wealthy students.  

“More than we want to admit, a lot of admissions decisions at both public and private institutions are made based on the financial resources of families.”

Money affects who shows up to which classes too. He says many schools have provided mixed messaging over whether class will be in-person, online, or a hybrid of the two, and families with lots of resources can be more flexible and adapt more easily than those without them. 

Tough says that when faced with thinner budgets, schools might also cut student support systems. That includes mentors and advisors. As a result, he says that often affects  first generation students more, because they might need more assistance navigating through college. 

Silver linings of the pandemic?

Anderson says that one possible outcome of distance and hybrid learning is a renewed conversation around class sizes and staffing. She says it might even result in major reinvestments. 

“It might give us an opportunity to think about something like a Great New Deal, where we would be able to hire more people to come into classrooms … and think about how we can support new incoming teachers to become strong in both virtual and face-to-face instruction.”

Tough argues that the pandemic might help create more opportunities for online and hybrid education models. He says the traditional, residential college model is important, but it’s not the right fit for everyone. 

He uses the example of Southern New Hampshire University, which uses a mix of online and in-person learning. 

“A few dozen students come for a few hours a day, and do their online learning together,” Tough says. “They get the flexibility of the online model and the inexpensive tuition of an online model. But they also have a sense of community. They have advisors and supporters who are right there in the room with them.”

Anderson hopes that schools begin to embrace other models of socially distanced, in-person activities as the pandemic continues. 

“I think that there are some ways that schools, even those that are closed physically, can be open for some face-to-face experiences that give kids the connections that they need to the school building as a place where experiences take place that enrich their lives.”

— Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Michell Eloy and Brian Hardzinski



  • Paul Tough - author, “The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us”
  • Annette Anderson - Johns Hopkins School of Education; JHU Center for Safe and Healthy Schools