2022 Topical Reporting: Pandemic Coverage, Portfolio finalist

American Education’s Most Turbulent Year

About the Project

It’s not an exaggeration to say that no event in the last 50 years has changed American education like the pandemic. As these stories demonstrate, we’re still coming to grips with the fallout, from lost learning to missing students to invasive technology, fiscal calamity and overwhelmed educators.

To mark a once unthinkable 700 days since most of the nation’s schools went on lockdown, reporter Linda Jacobson interviewed scores of parents, educators, students and researchers to examine how we got here — and where we’re likely headed. The oral history offered new behind-the-scenes details of how administrators tried (and often failed) to contain what one academic called “a seismic interruption to education unlike anything we’ve ever seen,” as well as candid acknowledgements of COVID’s enormous psychological toll.

Combining exclusive data from tracking company Burbio and industrious reporting, Linda offered a first look at the hemorrhaging student enrollment numbers resulting from a punishing year of lockdown and remote learning. The immediate upshot: Many urban districts are contemplating staff cuts and school closures to make up for lost revenue. Linda tracked down Los Angeles schools chief Alberto Carvalho, who didn’t mince words when asked what would happen if current trends didn’t abate: “Armageddon.”

Mark Keierleber’s investigation revealed how a private, for-profit company used artificial intelligence and hourly-wage human content moderators to surveil students’ thoughts, conversations and writings far beyond school hours. Mark used public records requests to obtain Minneapolis Public Schools’ incident reports from the company Gaggle covering the first six months of the pandemic, using that data to analyze when students were being surveilled and which of their communications were being flagged. His reporting exposed how one school system deployed a controversial security tool that grew rapidly during COVID-19 — often in the name of combatting the student mental health crisis — but carries significant civil rights and privacy implications.
Asher Lehrer-Small landed exclusive data on state-by-state levels of in-person learning and analyzed those figures based on a 180-day school year and a 6.5-hour school day. What he found was startling: schools in Republican states offered in-person learning at nearly twice the rate of those in Democratic states. That amounted to an estimated 66 additional days — or 432 hours — of face-to-face instruction during one of the pandemic’s most argued-over periods. Given what we know about the superiority of in-person learning over remote, these politically aligned disparities carry enormous student consequences.

Beth Hawkins dug into a financial quandary created by the unprecedented infusion of billions of dollars in federal pandemic school relief funds: How should districts spend the money? Living in the Twin Cities, she watched this dilemma play out before her eyes. St. Paul proposed closing five schools and consolidating 10 more to reflect its shrinking headcount and free up funds to support student learning. But Minneapolis decided to plug existing budget gaps in hopes that enrollment would rebound. The former approach is politically risky; the latter, experts warn, courts disaster — a fiscal cliff.