It could take years to fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. students and schools. But educators and experts already know that as schools reopen, families and educators are still in the throes of financial uncertainty and academic struggles, and the needs are extensive.
“The past year has been so challenging for K-12 students,” said Ann Pifer, executive director of the nonprofit AdoptAClassroom.org. “We thought we were making progress, but the lack of vaccines [for children younger than 12] will mean masks and distancing again for many school districts. The biggest issue is learning loss and helping students catch up. And going into this year, the needs are bigger than ever.”
AdoptAClassroom.org has provided funding for school supplies to classrooms and families in need since 1998. The nonprofit pivoted to offer immediate assistance to ease distance learning in the early months of the pandemic, and now it’s challenged to do so again as schools welcome back some students who have not been in physical classrooms in over a year. With school doors already opening in many districts, 92 percent of classrooms have students whose families cannot afford to purchase any school supplies for their children.
As the pandemic shut down schools, educators were sent scrambling to create new lesson plans and become instant experts in distance learning. The situation not only brought national attention to many of the inequities among school districts, but it also exacerbated them. “There are vast differences between schools and between districts, and the public has not been aware of the extent of that issue,” Pifer told 3p. “The pandemic emphasized the technology gap: It showed where some students don’t have technology at home,” she added. “Before it was an inconvenience. Now we know it is a major equity issue.”
Launched in March 2020, AdoptAClasroom.org’s COVID-19 Relief Fund for Teachers and Students aimed to deploy rapid funds to purchase tablets and other supplies to help students reconnect with their teachers at high-needs schools across the nation, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. In general, about 80 percent of the classrooms funded by the organization last year were located in high-needs schools nationwide
But despite this effort and many others like it across the country, the inability to access classroom materials, including laptops, caused many students to fall behind. According to 65 percent of teachers surveyed by AdoptAClassroom.org, students who did not have the necessary tools were less likely to participate during distance learning. More than half of teachers said they had students who did not engage with their curriculum during the last school year at all.
Teachers have been pulling out their own checkbooks to make up the funding gap. According to AdoptAClassroom.org, about 96 percent of teachers purchase supplies for their students, spending an average of $750 annually. Increased student needs during remote learning prompted teachers to dig deeper: About 30 percent of teachers surveyed by AdoptAClassroom.org reported spending $1,000 out of pocket on supplies last year. “A lot feel like they have to pull their own money,” Pifer said. “I wish more members of the public knew the sacrifices teachers make. Teachers were under incredible stress.”
Studies show that while most children lost some academic ground over the past 18 months, students of color are falling further behind than their white counterparts. Those students and others who were under-resourced during distance learning will be playing catch-up this year, and the need is too great for even generous educators to meet on their own. “Classroom budgets will not be enough to cover expenses this year,” Pifer told us.
Businesses and community organizations are stepping up to meet the need, many in partnership with AdoptAClassroom.org: Educators can register on AdoptAClassroom’s website and list the supplies or services they need, and AdoptAClassroom finds sponsors for them. The group has 30 partners participating at varying levels, some supporting classrooms throughout the year and others holding fundraisers for specific events. “Consumers care more than ever before what companies are doing to support communities, and whether they see them as positive forces,” Pifer said.
One company supporting these efforts is Subaru of America, which has worked with AdoptAClassroom.org since 2016 as part of its Subaru Loves Learning initiative and this year expanded its participation. More than 600 Subaru retailers are partnering with high-need schools in their local communities, helping to ensure better education outcomes for K-12 students. AdoptaClassroom.org matches Subaru retailers with Title 1 schools in their local community and retailers work with school Principals to select classrooms that are in need to “adopt”. Teachers of the adopted classrooms are given funding that they can use directly on AdoptaClassroom.org’s marketplace, where teachers can purchase items for their students or their classroom. Through the Subaru Loves Learning campaign, Subaru will help more than 114,000 students and more than 4,700 classrooms across the country.
"At Subaru, we are committed to ensuring that students have the resources they need to not only learn, but to bring the subjects to life, fostering real interest and intellectual growth in each young individual," Alan Bethke, senior vice president of marketing for Subaru of America, Inc., said in a statement. "We're excited to work with AdoptAClassroom.org to make learning more accessible for all children and get them on the path to success."
Pifer is impressed with the automaker’s vision. “I love the way Subaru really sees the big picture,” she said. “They know it’s about helping students succeed in schools. But they are not just giving money; it’s a broad and holistic approach.”
Corporations also are responding to a broader scope of needs. “We’ve really seen significant shifts in corporate philanthropy over the past year,” Pifer observed. “We see it being more responsive to societal issues, such as racial equity. It has caused many corporations to think about what they can do to make a difference.”
For example, AdoptAClassroom.org launched the Racial Equity in Schools Fund last June in response to demand from educators for more and better learning tools for students who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). “We received an unprecedented number of grant applications, more than ever before,” Pifer recalled. Donors overwhelmingly responded to the requests, and 574 educators across the country received funding to improve education for students of color. “Teachers needed materials and training to make changes in classrooms,” Pifer said.
Stories like these are bright spots amidst the harsh lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic. Society has learned where many of the educational inequities are, and now the assignment is to address them so schools are not caught off guard again. “We have to put more focus on how we can bridge that technology gap and think about planning for the future,” Pifer said. “Schools need to be better prepared for future crises.”
This article series is sponsored by Subaru and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image credit: wavebreak3/Adobe Stock
Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT. Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.