Education, ESL, Policy

Generation Interrupted: A Pandemic and a Precedent

There’s no doubt that this has been a school year like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted schooling across the globe. A variety of “distance learning” measures remain in place for an unforeseen future. And many worry about the long-term impacts these disruptions will have on students and their learning.

Still, it’s important to remember that, for many, schooling interruption is not a new phenomenon.

In the field of language education, there’s an acronym called “SIFE.” It stands for “Students with Interrupted Formal Education.” The SIFE label is most often applied to refugee students whose schooling was interrupted by political and economic instability in their home countries. Within the U.S., however, there are many additional causes of interrupted schooling, such as housing insecurity, punitive suspension, chronic health issues, and the school to prison pipeline. Although the SIFE label isn’t usually applied in these latter cases, research documents the many obstacles students face upon schooling reentry, regardless of what caused the interruption.

These studies also point to a systemic unpreparedness of many schools to accommodate even short-term schooling interruptions. This research reveals a system so predicated on “normalcy,” that it is unable to support even the relatively small percentage of students whose schooling is interrupted in a given year.

So what happens when that system encounters a pandemic?

We’re now seeing this system at its breaking point. And to be clear, it’s not the students, it’s not the teachers, and it’s not the families who are at fault. Instead, what this pandemic has revealed is a myopic view of schooling and the students who experience its interruption.

I wrote about these issues in a piece for Educational Researcher. In this piece, I make three arguments about interrupted schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

1. SIFE students and their teachers can tell us a lot about how to deal with the current realities of interrupted schooling. 

2. The policy changes implemented during the pandemic (e.g. distance learning, standardized testing exemptions) have been historically denied to SIFE students. These accommodations should never again be labeled as “impossible.”

3. We have a real opportunity to reimagine education in the wake of this pandemic, if we choose to seize it. 

I’m hopeful around the last point, but I’ve honestly seen few pushes in the direction of actual change. As I conclude in the article,

In the midst of any crisis, there is often a push to go “back to normal” as quickly as is feasible. There will come a time when victory is declared over COVID-19, and any related accommodations deemed no longer necessary. However, we must recognize that compelled regression to the status quo represents a time-tested strategy for maintaining existing power structures.

[But] in the wake of this crisis, the chance exists to seize to the proof points of what is achievable beyond traditional notions of formal education and the detriments of its interruption—toward rethinking interruption as possibility.

We’re seeing seeds of this possibility. However, with the anxieties around learning opportunities “lost” during this pandemic, I fear we’re setting ourselves up to overlook the many learning gains. As educator Peter Darker wrote earlier this month,

Of course, the duration and the aftermath of this pandemic remain to be seen. One certainty, however, is that students will continue to experience interrupted schooling in all the precedented ways that occurred since long before this pandemic. We can and must do better moving forward.

You can read the full article in Educational Researcher, or view a copy on Academia.edu.

Full Citation: Chang-Bacon, C. K. (2021). Generation interrupted? Rethinking “students with interrupted formal education” (SIFE) in the wake of a pandemic. Educational Researcher. Advance Online Publication. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0013189X21992368

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