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MSU scholars examine coronavirus impact on politics, economy, K-12 education, digital divide

Cindy Kyle | IPPSR MSU
Matt Grossmann, Arnold Weinfeld, Charley Ballard

State of the State is the monthly roundup of policy and research for the State of Michigan from the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University and our friends at WKAR. Arnold Weinfeld, associate director for the institute, is joined as always by MSU economist Dr. Charley Ballard and Institute Director Dr. Matt Grossmann.

In the second part of this conversation, they’re joined by Dr. Keith Hampton and Dr. Johannes Bauer, both of whom are affiliated with MSU's Quello Center, which is focused on research that stimulates and informs public debate on media, communication, and information policy. They'll be discussing their latest report, which investigated the broadband gap and K-12 student performance, a subject made even more timely by the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic and resulting closure of schools for the remainder of the school year.

On the economy, says Ballard, “I look for silver linings in any cloud, but this is a very cloudy cloud. Right now this is the sharpest, fastest economic contraction that the United States economy has ever had. Moody's Analytics says that daily output is down by 29 percent nationally, and it's actually a little bit more than that in Michigan. Different states are slightly above or slightly below that national average of a 29 percent fall in economic activity.

“There is no question we are in a recession now. The best that we can hope for, and there are good things that we can hope for, is if we can get the virus under control. The sooner that we can do that, the better it'll be for the economy. If we can begin to move back toward more normal activity, we may be able to have a fairly rapid rebound from this extraordinarily sharp downturn. But right now, in early April, this is certainly a very, very difficult patch in terms of our health and in terms of our economy.”

And on the impact of Covid-19 on our politics, adds Grossmann, “President Trump has certainly tried to leave it to the governors and not provided as much as he could and not do as much coordination as past presidents have done. Governors are already both fighting and coordinating among themselves, and in the longer-term, they're going to be very reliant on federal resources because right now they have some new expenditures and they have a dramatic drop in revenue coming.”

The trio discusses the potential impact of the virus on Michigan’s manufacturing sector and on K-12 education across the country.

“Nearly every state has closed its schools,” Grossmann says. “Many have already ended face-to-face instruction for the year, and many others will go down that route. We’re tracking what states have decided and attempting to provide some of the research background to make some of their transitions potentially more effective, but it is going to be a difficult situation.

Credit College of Communication Arts and Sciences Michigan State University
Keith Hampton

“Essentially, most states that we've seen make moves so far are telling the districts, ‘okay, you need to start distance education as soon as you can. You have to abide by every federal restriction in terms of students with disabilities and still provide individualized instruction to students with special needs, and we don't have any resources for you, and you need to do it in the next two weeks.’ And that is obviously going to be a big problem for everyone trying to implement it.

“There are some districts that are prepared to distribute, say, internet-connected devices and provide some kind of curriculum for at least some age groups within their districts. But there is not a single state that was prepared even to the level that universities were prepared to shift all of a sudden to providing statewide distance education. And while there's a lot of innovation that we're tracking in terms of being able to make contacts in other ways, for example, some of the research does suggest that the contacts with teachers are our most important. If they can be done by mail or by phone or by text, they could also be effective. There are some districts innovating there, but everyone is learning on the fly. What we've tried to do is collect on our website what every state is doing, what they're requiring of their districts, and any materials that they are providing to their districts to make that happen.”

“About a year ago, much before this crisis, we set out to look at levels of digital inequality primarily in rural Michigan,” says Hampton. “We partnered with 15 school districts and Merit Networks, primarily rural school districts, to look at levels of at-home connectivity, what students were doing online, what types of devices they had, and their digital skills. Most importantly, we were interested in how variation in those different levels of inequality was affecting different types of performance related to standardized test taking, classroom grades, intent to go on to university, and even interest in STEM-related careers.

“When we looked at rural students, about 47 percent of those who were living in rural areas had some kind of high-speed internet access at home, compared to about 77 percent of those suburban students that we interviewed. Of those who don't have any kind of home connectivity, about a third of them also don't have a computer at home.

“There's a very big gap between what students are doing who don't have connectivity and those who do in terms of digital skills.”

Credit College of Communication Arts and Sciences Michigan State University
Johannes Bauer (right) with Communication Arts and Sciences dean Prabu David

“Our report has had influence on the ground,” Bauer adds. “It was received by many people who are worried about how to navigate these difficult times. Some of these inequalities are difficult to overcome in the short-term. It's not that we didn't know them. They have been known for decades. Ten years ago the federal government issued a national broadband plan that laid out the territory as to what needed to happen to be able to use broadband to increase productivity in the economy, to deliver important government services, and to deliver educational services. We have made significant progress in the meantime, but broadband is not yet at all those locations where it should be to really have a second effective mode of education in a crisis like this.

“This is not just a rural or small town issue. We see the same or even more egregious divides and inequalities actually in urban areas, where the differences between those who are connected and those who are not connected, for income or for non-availability issues, are as large as they are in rural Michigan.”

“A year ago when we started this, we set out to find out if and where these inequalities exist. It’s really about skill and devices. Cell phone-only access is not equivalent to having high-speed access and a computer in the home. And even once you work on these inequalities in access, students are going to be experiencing massive differences in their digital skills and ability to engage online with content, and that's even before we address inequalities in parents' and teachers' digital skills.”

“Education is the strongest indicator of future earnings, and the differences between the earnings of those with more education and those with less have widened very dramatically in the last 40 years,” says Ballard. “Among men, the average real earnings for those with a high school diploma or less are less now than they were in the early 1970s. For those with a bachelor's degree or more, there's been pretty good growth. So, education is absolutely crucial, and increasingly I think digital sophistication is going to make a huge difference.”

In closing, Grossmann is thinking about the next school year and adds “Students are going to come back behind where they otherwise would be even if you assume the very best efforts on behalf of students, teachers, and districts to try to make these haphazard changes very quickly. The easiest way to make up that lost learning is actually going to be more instruction, that is, a longer school year or a longer school day. There are a few states thinking about it, but it, of course, has to come with more resources to make happen. And those are currently in short supply. Governor Whitmer opened the door. She said that districts could advance different schedules for next year, but it's not just different schedules that are going to be necessary. It's actually more instruction.”

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