Keeping children home from school seemed an emergency measure, not an ongoing way of life, to students, parents, and teachers alike when the COVID-19 lockdowns began a year ago. Yet interruptions to in-person schooling continue worldwide. New York City reopened schools in fall 2020, only to close them again not long after. Belgium is reentering a strict national lockdown that includes school closures. As long as the pandemic continues, with new waves and variants still in play, in-person schooling will be precarious. One of the biggest questions hovering over this new reality: How has it made social inequality worse?

As Helaine Olen, a columnist with The Washington Post, sees it, this effect has been significant and could be lasting. She points out that for many underprivileged children in the United States, online school has amounted to no school—both for straightforward reasons such as the absence of wireless internet, but also because older teens with parents who are essential workers have had to supervise their young siblings’ online schooling, making these teens unable to attend virtual school themselves. While the impact on poorer kids and students with special needs has been disproportionately dire, Olen says, publicly insisting on a return to in-person education is a challenge, in part because of how much the subject has been politicized.


Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Where does the question of schooling fit with general trends in how the U.S. has dealt with the pandemic over the course of this past year?

Helaine Olen: Everything shuts down in this blind panic in mid-March [2020]. We go from Everything is fine to oh my God, everybodys gonna die if they get this, in a matter of a week or two. To be fair, there were some people saying the school shouldn’t have closed at the time, but they were few and far between. Most people seem to be utterly panicked about what was going on, which I think was fair. Nobody really knew what was going on. Nobody really thinks through that you and I are going to be having this conversation a roughly a year from that day.

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