Paul Morgan headshot in red polo shirt.
Published on: September 10, 2020

At the start of the new school year, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused parents, teachers and school administrators to grapple with education options. Paul Morgan, a professor in the Penn State College of Education and director of the Center for Educational Disparities Research in the Social Science Research Institute, recently participated in a Twitter chat featuring K-12 education experts to discuss back-to-school plans in a pandemic, and the potential lasting impacts on the educational system.

Morgan participated in the Twitter chat, which was hosted by the news organization Reuters, on Sept. 2. Reuters staff members sent out tweets from a few different Reuters handles during the week leading up to the chat inviting reader questions. Users were invited to follow along on Twitter at @Reuters and submit questions using the hashtag #AskReuters.

Among the approximately 18,000 school districts in the U.S., Morgan said, there is a lot of variation in how schools are responding to the coronavirus crisis. Some districts are operating under a hybrid model, while some are entirely remote or haven’t started the school year yet.

“You’ve got a lot of different ways of doing business that are being done across the country,” he said. “I do think that for many kids who are online, there are things being lost because of this new normal.”

Morgan, whose work focuses on early risk factors for learning difficulties, has discovered new research grounds to cover as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve been interested in educational inequality for some time,” he said. “This is a sudden new normal in terms of how schools are working.”  

A few of the most pressing questions posed by Twitter users, Morgan said, involved topics such as how can parents, teachers and students prepare for the coming school year; how the new academic year will be different in light of the coronavirus pandemic; how the technology gap will impact learning; and how the pandemic is affecting children with disabilities.

According to Morgan, one of the most unfortunate consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on education is the exacerbation of social class divisions. In terms of technology and educational resources, well-off families are likely to supplement their children’s learning in ways that families with less means won’t be able to do.

“Schools are under a lot of pressure and demands already, and now they’re trying to manage learning in a pandemic,” said Morgan. “I think the effects are likely to be negative and long-lasting, and I think it’s going to likely exacerbate inequalities in part because of the differential learning trajectories that will result.”

In addition, Morgan said, children with disabilities are at greater risk of experiencing setbacks as a result of remote learning. Teachers have more challenges in managing learning in a remote environment, “especially for kids with disabilities who have problems with attention and self-regulatory behaviors.”

“Sustaining attention under a virtual learning platform is difficult for most of us and it’s probably especially difficult for those with attention and learning problems,” he said. “It’s not an ideal platform, so I suspect that learning and engagement will be lower overall.”

In addition to losing out on the stability and structure that come with physically being in school, Morgan said, some students may be dealing with dire circumstances. Possibly due to a lack of in-person contact, reports of child abuse by teachers to appropriate authorities are decreasing.

While Morgan said he’s not certain what will happen to the educational system after the pandemic, he thinks that the switch to remote learning may be permanent for some families. Less teasing and bullying and fewer distractions from classmates could work in favor of certain students.

“Some families may even see that their children are doing better under a virtual approach,” he said.