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OPINION: Why school shutdowns are a disaster for science classes

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Despite mounting evidence that schools are not turning out to be major incubators or vectors of  Covid-19 transmission, New York City shut down its public school system in November.

Such closures have a disastrous impact on education in STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. Science in particular is extremely hands-on and almost impossible to grasp virtually.  

While pre-Ks, elementary schools and some schools for children with complex disabilities reopened in December, there is still no plan to reopen middle and high schools. Many other major school systems remain closed as well.

As an M.D.-Ph.D. student of color and a past New York City public school educator, I am particularly concerned about how these closures are hurting Hispanic and Black children and those from low-income families. 

Even before the pandemic, STEM achievement gaps in K-12 schools were significant. More than half of Asian and white students across grade levels score at or above average on STEM standardized tests, compared with merely 28 percent of Hispanic and 18 percent of Black students.

Many health providers and researchers agree that prolonged school closures and makeshift virtual curricula — with variable attendance and suboptimal engagement — are detrimental to kids’ overall growth and development.

For many of these students and others coming from low-income backgrounds, science knowledge gaps exist even prior to kindergarten entry but become gravely amplified in primary and secondary schools.

Such students have fewer informal science opportunities and limited broadband Wi-Fi access at home and attend schools in  districts that receive, by one estimate, $1,200 less in funding per student. They also have fewer hours of science instruction. 

I worry the closures mean we will lose a generation of aspiring STEM professionals, erasing gains in STEM diversity we have achieved over the past two decades.

Unsurprisingly, such foundational STEM disparities extend far beyond secondary school education. At the college level, Hispanic and Black students have lower completion rates of STEM majors; according to the National Science Foundation, in 2016 Hispanics earned 13.5% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in science and 10% of those in engineering; Black students, 9% and 4%.

In addition, STEM-related master’s and doctorate degrees are awarded to only a sliver of that percentage. The STEM attrition rate for Blacks and Hispanics and low-income individuals is undoubtedly reflected in the current composition of the STEM workforce.

Hispanics hold only 6 percent of STEM jobs requiring postsecondary degrees, while Blacks hold 7 percent. At the upper echelons,

disparities are even more glaring. Hispanics make up only 5 percent and Blacks only 2 percent of senior-level and senior scientific and professional employees at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Hispanics and Blacks are also underrepresented in directorship positions at national organizations such as the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and  Food and Drug Administration. 

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There is no doubt that prolonged school closures will have a devastating domino effect on science education. They will also likely depress high school graduation rates, cause a spike in dropout rates, and negatively impact final educational attainment.

As I think back on my time teaching biology and nutrition for an after-school program in Manhattan, I worry the closures mean we will lose a generation of aspiring STEM professionals, erasing gains in STEM diversity we have achieved over the past two decades.

I’m thinking about students like Ella, whose family was temporarily living in a shelter. She wanted to become a doctor after one of her siblings died of advanced medulloblastoma, but her mother barely spoke English. Together we learned basic concepts like capillary action (blood flow) and how to dissect (using chicken legs). I worry such students will fall through the cracks when school is remote.

That’s why I believe we have to prioritizeschool openings and deem schools an essential service. They are far more important than gyms and restaurants, which, data show, are much more likely to transmit Covid-19 than schools (especially primary schools).

More than half of Asian and white students across grade levels score at or above average on STEM standardized tests compared with merely 28 percent of Hispanic and 18 percent of Black students.

Schools need additional funding to follow all sanitation protocols and to emulate the model of Seattle, a district spending nearly $95 million to address race-based disparities in K-12 schools, along with the adverse impacts of piecemeal virtual education.

Local universities and colleges can also partner with teachers and school districts to provide additional STEM homework support in the interim.  

At the same time, ancillary initiatives may be beneficial. The federal government, NIH, NSF and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine should work proactively with local governments and school districts to fund chemistry, biology and other age-appropriate science kits to provide at-home engagement.

Related: We must boost elementary science education

Local science and natural history museums could also help by arranging free outdoor and physically distanced exhibits, and setting up outdoor kid-friendly laboratories with slides and microscopes.

Logistically, this would be no different than the outdoor restaurant arrangements that have already sprouted all over New York City. We need to harness STEM curiosity and keep exposure to and opportunities for learning.  

In the U.S., jobs in the STEM sector are forecast to grow by 8 percent by 2028. If we don’t prioritize school reopening and, in particular, STEM education for the most socially vulnerable students, the disparities in our talent pool will be exacerbated. 

Hispanic students like STEM subjects and aspire to STEM careers at similar rates to their White/Asian peers,  data from a recent study indicates.

We must do everything we can to make these aspirations a reality for them and for all underrepresented students. 

Lala Tanmoy (Tom) Das is a student in the Weill Cornell/ Rockefeller/Sloan Kettering Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program in New York City.

This story about STEM education was produced by  The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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