School’s out. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, schools ranging from kindergartens to universities have been closing, and learning has gone completely digital. It started on March 10, when Harvard University instructed its undergraduates to pack their bags and leave campus within five days. At the time, it felt striking, sobering—we hoped it was an overreaction. Government officials had not yet sounded the alarm; the Trump administration was still in denial about the severity of the crisis. Looking back, that moment was an inflection point for many Americans, a harbinger of all the other changes that would soon alter our daily lives. The closing of the universities was a sign, not from our public leaders, but from private institutions, whose experts had done the risk analysis and made their decision accordingly. The day after Harvard’s announcement, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global pandemic. As “shelter in place” and “stay at home” orders were issued in California and New York, other universities followed suit.
The result has been an unforeseen disruption to American education on all levels. As Zoom meetings became a reality not just for working professionals but also for elementary-school students, a new normal was born. But not everyone has equal access to it. The Pew Research Center reports that 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children lack high-speed internet at home. The illusion of equality on elite campuses has been shattered, as students from low-income families return to homes where they may be expected to help with childcare or household expenses.