Reflections on the Two-Year Anniversary of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Most Americans began to feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020: schools closed, hospitals redirected resources and began triaging cases, and unemployment surged. The pandemic affected nearly all sectors of society, including some of the areas where AIR focuses its work—education, workforce development, and health.

On the two-year anniversary of this historic moment, we asked our experts to reflect on the pandemic’s unexpected consequences, adaptations that may outlast the pandemic itself, and any silver linings. A common thread across experts and topics was how the pandemic highlighted inequities. Because the pandemic affected virtually every aspect of individuals’ daily lives—including health, education, transportation, employment, and access to resources—disparities compounded in and across each of these areas.

Shift to Technology Unevenly Affected Students

The quick pivot to virtual environments in the early days of the pandemic helped alleviate some immediate needs to curtail the virus, but technology was not a turnkey solution, particularly for schools. As AIR’s 2020 COVID-19 study shows, school districts with strong preexisting virtual technology had an easier time shifting to remote learning.

Alise Crossland

Access to technology was consistently an issue for students and educators, particularly in 2020. “Across the board, the shift to remote learning exposed significant areas of need for students, teachers, and families and exacerbated existing inequities in access to technology, broadband internet service, and learning resources,” said Alise Crossland, a senior researcher who has studied digital learning solutions for general and special education.

Dia Jackson

Some students were more affected than others by these shifts. Senior Researcher Dia Jackson points out that students with disabilities usually receive much needed therapy and services at school but did not have access to those supports in the same way when schools closed.

“The reliance on digital methods provided an opportunity for school staff to explore additional ways to communicate with families, provide therapy, and support individual student needs in various ways,” said Jackson, a former educator whose work focuses on students with disabilities. “Many of those ways will remain in place and will provide much needed access to additional support.”

Image of Katherine Hughes

Virtual environments also meant that students in career and technical education (CTE) programs could not learn in the same ways they had been. Principal Researcher Katherine Hughes, who leads the federal CTE Research Network, says, “These students were unable to practice the hands-on skills that, for many, provide the meaning to their school day. Without this practical training aspect, teachers and administrators in many cases could not count students as completing the programs, nor arrange for students to take the assessments necessary to earn industry-based credentials.”

Allison Gandhi

Education experts have been touting school-family connections and partnerships for many years. But AIR Vice President Allison Gandhi believes the pandemic and remote learning highlighted their importance in new ways. “In order to ensure that students with disabilities continued to receive services according to their Individualized Education Programs, family members often had to play a more active role in delivering and monitoring those services. In some cases, this was a silver lining because it strengthened the family-school partnership,” she said. “In others, unfortunately, existing tensions between families and schools were exacerbated.”

Joseph Wilson

At the same time, some districts displayed ingenuity and flexibility to reach students. “School districts serving the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho students on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming used their school busses to deliver laptops, WiFi hotspots, paper resources for students and parents, and meals while in-person instruction was paused,” said Principal TA Consultant Joseph Wilson.

Rethinking the Traditional Office

Image of Dwayne Norris

The pandemic has certainly changed the way people work and where they work. Many organizations had to flip to a fully remote workplace when COVID-19 hit, and some have still not fully reopened their offices. Dwayne Norris, AIR’s Chief People Officer, believes this change is requiring companies to rethink their office and engagement strategies. Many employees have discovered they can get their work done effectively and efficiently at home, without having to deal with the hassles and extra time of a commute. Norris, an organizational psychologist, said if businesses want staff to return to an office, they are going to have to give them a reason to do so.

“The missing ingredient in a lot of discussions about the pros and cons of being in an office overlook the intentionality that is required to advance inclusion, access, and greater opportunities for all when they come to the office,” Norris said. “The office has to be more than a destination to work, especially to the many that have now discovered their home is a much more convenient place to do their jobs. Perhaps employees will want to come back to the office when it is a tool for inclusion, access, and opportunity.”

New Stresses for Workers, New Opportunities

Most Americans became familiar with the term “essential workers” in 2020, when our workforce was divided into two categories: those who could work remotely and those who could not.

Image of Deborah Moroney

The staff of community-based organizations, afterschool programs, and childcare centers certainly qualified as essential workers, and their organizations remained open even as schools closed. However, after two years, the employees who power these organizations are still struggling. “These very fields are being hard hit by a shifting labor market, with staff leaving these essential jobs for safer jobs, better pay and benefits, and possibly more flexibility,” explains Vice President Deborah Moroney. “We need to know more concretely about this valued workforce, their pathways, and how they are faring through the pandemic and beyond.”

Jack Jordan

Similarly, the pandemic’s unexpected duration upended professional life at hospitals. “Changes in staffing, patient mix, and practices in care have caused a fundamental rethinking of the way forward in providing safe care and making the career fulfilling,” Principal Researcher Jack Jordan says. “I think the next five years will shift how hospitals are staffed and provide care for the better. However, right now, it’s hard to know what those positive changes will look like.”

Daniela Zapata

One silver lining may be how experts in various fields collaborated to address the pressing new questions the pandemic raised. As Principal Researcher Daniela Zapata explained, “There has been increased collaboration between epidemiologists and economists to try to understand better what preventive measures are more effective in reducing the spread of the virus.” She predicts these kinds of collaborations will continue after the pandemic, as they are valuable beyond COVID-19.

Renewed Focus on Health Inequities

Image of Erica Shelton

The pandemic also increased awareness of the inequities in the American health care system and the importance—and interconnectedness—of public health. As both a health researcher and emergency medicine physician, Principal Researcher Erica Shelton has seen this change in awareness from multiple angles.

In her medical work, Shelton was often able to witness the “complex spiral” of how COVID-19 affected individual patients, particularly those with underlying chronic illness and suboptimal access to health care services. “As a result, I see a greater understanding—among care providers, researchers, policymakers, and individuals—of the need for evidence-based practices to prevent, or at least mitigate, a similar public health emergency in the future,” she said.

“I also have noticed a large increase in interest in health equity research and in community engagement of marginalized populations to incorporate their voices in this work,” Shelton added. “My hope is that this newfound interest on the part of researchers, and the related funding it necessitates, will be sustained.”