Education during the pandemic: The DOE needs to do more

Illustration by Noelle Hepworth

Ishaan Nandwani, Contributing Writer

During this pandemic, our lives have changed drastically, but as college students there’s been arguably no place we’ve felt this impact more than our education.

As we’ve been ushered into an era of online classes and social distancing, we’ve experienced both the academic and mental challenges of a virtual education. Not only has it been more difficult to absorb the course material, but it has also been challenging to connect with professors and peers beyond the classroom.

Additionally, countless students have been preoccupied with concerns over post-graduation job prospects with the current economic climate of our nation. Many have massive student loans to pay off and fear that the limited job market will leave them drowning in debt. It’s clear that students need support now more than ever.

Despite the devastation of this past year, the U.S. Department of Education has failed students. Under the leadership of former Secretary Betsy DeVos, the department blocked emergency COVID-19 aid for students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, pressured schools to reopen without substantive plans to keep students safe and redirected federal relief funds from public education to private schools.

DeVos’ incompetence in dealing with critical education issues was apparent long before the pandemic; during her time in former President Donald Trump’s cabinet, she moved to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, crafted a proposal to slash education funding by $6.1 billion and blocked investigations into student loan fraud.

As a VCU student, I’ve had the chance to interact with students from all walks of life — some are the first in their families to pursue higher education; others are immigrants from humble beginnings who yearn for the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Unfortunately, after the last four years of the Trump administration, these dreams have grown dimmer by the day.

DeVos’ motions have been catastrophic for students, benefitting private donors at the expense of public school students. Student debt has only increased with less than 11% of people with federal student loans repaying them throughout the pandemic, and relief has been extremely limited. It’s evident that change is necessary, and the government needs to do more.

It is essential that President Joe Biden’s administration takes a step to not only address student debt, but also a swift and safe return to schools.

Luciana de Oliveira, associate dean for academic affairs at VCU, expressed hope for the administration. De Oliveira holds a doctorate in education.

“The Biden administration is committed to ensuring that students and educators are able to resume safe, in-person learning as quickly as possible — the key word here is safe,” de Oliveira said. “They do not want to risk the lives of children, teachers and administrators, so the steps they are taking are important.”

On the other hand, some of the work to reduce student debt has already begun. Just this past week, Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, paused student loan payments and placed the interest rate at 0%, a significant step forward. Still, progressives call for more action and hope for a future in which student loan debt is completely eliminated.

Sophomore bioinformatics student Mallika Datta said expectations for eliminating student debt set prior to the election should not only be met, but exceeded.

“No student should have to invest in their academic future and help put food on their families’ tables while simultaneously living through the various economic, emotional and physical hardships faced due to the ongoing pandemic,” Datta said. “I’ve witnessed students dealing with familial loss and academic setbacks, and watching them worry about debt on top of all that is inhumane.”

Datta’s words are echoed by students across VCU and the country, who have experienced the brutal impact of the pandemic on their education. It is essential that we hold the Biden administration’s DOE accountable to relieve these educational burdens and deliver on strategies for students to return to in-person school safely.

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