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The Revised Purpose of School

How will the pandemic transformation of schools impact student futures?

Key points

  • Schools are increasingly taking on the role of a social services agency rather than an institution of learning.
  • A shift in the purpose of schools has myriad impacts including teacher shortages and long-term budget concerns.
  • Many schools are not equipped with the capacity to serve as community caregivers in a pandemic.

The purpose of school is always a topic for spirited debate — right up there with politics and religion. We hold our own experiences close to our hearts and often, understandably, have difficulty remaining objective. However, we are increasingly called to do just that as children globally have had vastly dissimilar schooling experiences since the onset of the global pandemic.

Schools are no longer built exclusively upon a foundation of cohesive, rigorous academic standards. Rather, out of necessity, schools have become a bastion of social services. It is essential caregivers understand how — and why — schools today are different and how that difference may impact the future of today's students.

Schools as Social Agencies

When the pandemic descended, schools became a new line of social defense. Academics took a back seat to more pressing issues such as hunger, mental illness, and shelter insecurity. As Nick Melvoin, board member of Los Angeles Unified School District, told me in a 2020 interview,

“When you have a district with over 18,000 homeless kids where the district is providing three meals a day to most of its kids it is difficult. We have mental health clinics and wellness centers. There is an existing crisis in this country that schools are filling in a lot of gaps around and now the [pandemic] is compounding it. The challenge we are addressing is that we are not funded to do all that” (Clavel, 2020).

When schools shuttered in the spring of 2020, they got to work serving the 50 million school children and their families. Principals knocked on doors, superintendents battled broadband companies, and teachers counseled the tired, sick, and hungry. Schools became approved community clinics for covid testing and vaccines.

This situation shifted schools from a historic emphasis on academics to a priority focus on feeding, mental health, medical care, and childcare. They continue to combat escalating rates of drug use, homelessness, and violence. Instruction and assessment have taken a backseat to the delivery of meals and Chromebooks.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash
The priority for schools shifted from instruction and assessment to feeding and broadband
Source: Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Schools also provide guaranteed childcare so our economy can hum along uninterrupted. The mass closure of schools in 2020 was an economic wake-up call: Schools cannot close again. While this may help the economy, the health and safety of students and faculty continues to be an issue in buildings with ancient HVAC systems or inability to obtain PPE due to supply chain issues.

The questions we now must consider are:

  • Do schools have the front-line capacity to do both social and academic offerings well?
  • What are the impacts if we continue to proceed in this way?
  • How will our students fare in a competitive global job market given this new reality?

Capacity and Impacts

A perilous issue exacerbated by the evolving role of schools is the ongoing teacher shortage. Special education, math, science, elementary education, foreign language and English are the top six shortage areas leading to increased caseloads for existing teachers thus amplifying the likelihood of continued burnout (Loughlin, 2021). In fact, several schools nationwide have had to shut down classrooms because of a lack of teachers and/or substitutes (Gecker, 2021).

The stress of teaching has triggered a spike in retirements and resignations fueled in many cases by tensions over health and safety, with 32% of 2,690 respondents to a National Education Association (NEA survey) claiming they plan to leave the profession earlier than expected (Gecker, 2021). Florida alone is in need of 5,000 teachers immediately along with an additional 4,000 openings for other school staff positions according to Florida Education Agency President Andrew Spar (Stuart, 2021).

In a new twist, money is not the main problem with staffing. Thanks to Federal rescue funds, schools have the money to hire additional staff. The problem is people are not applying. That may be because teachers did not join the profession to risk their health or be social workers (Gecker, 2021). Teachers are not trained in social work nor are they licensed psychotherapists. Schools lack the capacity for that level of professional training. To ask teachers to pursue such training on their own would only serve to exacerbate their already outrageous levels of student loan debt.

At the end of the day, a teacher’s job description has been radically altered without their consent. Many have accepted this new professional reality because they adore children, yet many others have fled leaving the field seriously shortchanged.

A Global Economy

In my experiences living abroad and through my lens as an expert in comparative international education, I can tell you that the schools which are thriving are not also dealing with every issue society throws their way. Their lane is education, and they stay in it.

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash
Many schools abroad are thriving because they don't have to deal with social issues
Source: Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

The reality is, other nations continue schooling children in a predominantly academic focused environment. Despite your opinion on the role of schools in the lives of families, with international peers meeting and exceeding rigorous academic standards and our schools catering to pressing social needs, our students may likely not be as prepared as they need to be for success in a global employment market.

Remote and hybrid work is the new normal. Employers can use Zoom to interview candidates from America to Singapore then Japan, and then the UK. Which country is preparing its students best for this new world of work?


The future will tell, but for me — I will continue to support my children’s learning at home as a supplement to school because I know there are gaps in their education and there may be times they do not have access to high-quality teachers due to shortages. I am going to continue to learn what skills students are learning abroad so I can mimic those lessons here at home. I would encourage you to do the same.


Clavel, Teru. [@TeruClavel]. What Schools are Lacking: Transparency (A conversation with Nick Melvoin) [Video]. YouTube.

Gecker, Jocelyn. (2021, September). Covid-19 creates dire US shortage of teachers, school staff. ABC News.….

Loughlin, Sue. (2021, October). 96% of districts report teacher shortages. The Tribune-Star.….

Stuart, Elizabeth. (2021, October). Florida is short more than 5000 teachers, education group says. The pandemic and low wages are to blame. CNN.