The Pandemic Has Been Brutal For U.S. Education—Here’s How CEOs Can Help

When the C-suite not only brings the dollars, but brings the right voices to their decision-making table—and asks the right questions—meaningful collaboration occurs.

While the education system has long experienced disparities in funding and resources, the unmet needs of K-12 classrooms have never been more apparent than during the pandemic. Within a matter of weeks, many districts shifted to remote learning and curriculums were uprooted — a process that, under normal circumstances, would have taken years of deliberations on funding and material.

This disruption rallied the support of donors to develop immediate solutions to help students, teachers and parents make the shift to e-learning and remedy systemic inequities across classrooms exacerbated by the pandemic. The philanthropic community — large companies and their leadership, individual donors and foundations — stepped up in a noble way by reversing the previously embraced norm in education grant-making from long-term investment and impact to the fulfillment of a short-term need.

Looking back on a year of unprecedented learning obstacles, the pandemic should serve as a call for business leaders to continue their impact by shifting the way they and their companies give. While signs of post-pandemic recovery and the full return to in-person learning are on the horizon, the needs of teachers, students and parents will continue to evolve and vary across schools as the world settles into a new normal. To ensure all diverse needs are met, the following strategies must not only become the norm during challenging times, but they should be embraced by corporations, foundations, C-suite leaders and educators looking ahead.

Gathering the Right Voices in the Room

With the pandemic’s challenges posing new obstacles to learning, donors quickly realized they could no longer rely on their traditional lines of defense, such as peer foundations or industry publications, to evaluate classroom needs and formulate giving strategies. New viewpoints were essential in developing solutions that captured every teacher, student and parent’s unique needs.

For instance, while a corporation’s nonprofit partners could provide open and honest perspectives on effective grant-making during a crisis, they could not address what classrooms could easily use within short order. Administrators could voice what resources their schools needed, but not within a shortened timeline. Only when corporate decision-makers involved teachers in the giving conversations did a holistic picture of classroom needs emerge. Further, inviting parents and students to join the conversation brought to light the different experiences families faced at home while adapting to e-learning. While remote learning disrupted the schedules of parents working day jobs, families not working the standard 9-to-5 jobs sometimes preferred the at-home model, yet some lacked the equipment to support the e-learning process.

It was through this combining of multiple perspectives that donors could identify the various challenges faced across schools, classrooms and households in order to craft impactful solutions that accounted for all needs. Just as corporate decision-makers look for diverse viewpoints when making business decisions, it’s essential that they do the same when considering how their gifts can make the most impact.

Asking the Right Questions

As Covid-19 outbreaks worsened, over a matter of days, many districts began to adapt: students moved to virtual learning, teachers adapted curriculums to be e-friendly, and parents were forced to take a closer look at their children’s technology and internet needs. These sudden shifts accelerated the need for decision-making among donors to determine how to support educators and students during the crisis. Out of this step emerged another important strategy: Asking the right questions.

Donors quickly learned that identifying unmet needs and determining which solutions would have the strongest impact were only as successful as the questions being asked. Rather than simply asking teachers and students what they needed, leaders learned to ask educators what resources could be deployed in short order to integrate seamlessly into a curriculum. For example, many education nonprofits’ responses to donors’ questions on how they could help fill the immediate need for laptops and tablets in low-income communities was an unexpected “Don’t.” Often times, the only schools legally able to accept these donations were charter and private schools, while other teachers had already received the technology and instead, needed remote-learning curriculums. Teachers had years of training and textbooks for in-class activities, but needed ways to keep children engaged when the resources they had been groomed to use no longer applied.

Over the past year, asking the right questions proved to be a critical and often overlooked step in delivering the resources classrooms really needed. As the needs of students and teachers continue to shift and vary in the months ahead, it will be important to maintain this strategy moving forward. Not only does asking the right questions give teachers a greater voice in the process, but it ensures donors’ support can be quickly felt within classrooms and be put to work tackling the systemic challenges schools face.

Erasing Competition and Embracing Collaboration

The immediate actions donors took to support the Covid-driven shift exposed them to societal and bureaucratic roadblocks affecting equity and collaboration when investing directly in schools — challenges those inside of schools have been navigating for years. This reiterated the difficulty and cost involved with implementing impactful educational programming at scale to address systemic change. To move the needle on complex, multi-faceted challenges, leaders looking to make an impact must look beyond their traditional grant-making protocols and embrace collaboration.

Successful collaboration relies on more than dollar donations; it invites the exchange of talents, ideas and resources to create dynamic and meaningful conversations that spark long-standing, systemic changes. When the C-suite not only brings the dollars, but brings the right voices to their decision-making table and asks the right questions, meaningful collaboration occurs. This is how to develop solutions that benefit all. Organizations should be working together, not in competition against one another, if they truly want to make a larger impact that drives societal change and dismantles systemic inequities. There is strength in numbers, whether this means collaborating with nonprofit partners to amplify a cause, or leveraging the specialized talents of a community partner to create e-learning programs for students in areas such as STEM.

The Future

While many uncertainties persist around the world’s post-pandemic recovery, one thing is clear: K-12 classrooms will continue to be cornerstones of communities, equipping students with the skills necessary to compete in the 21st century workforce and achieve financial security. As the past year has stressed, corporate support is critical to lifting initiatives off the ground and corporate decision-makers can no longer stay in the backseat of these important conversations impacting the future of American leadership and financial resilience. The new approaches adopted by C-suite leaders amid the pandemic must set the precedent for giving strategies moving forward.

As we look back on an unprecedented year in education, let us also thank teachers for their unwavering passion for learning and commitment to keeping students engaged during these challenging times.