Civic Learning Vital to Local and National COVID-19 Relief, Recovery, and Reform Efforts

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need for continued investment in youth civic development principally through high-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities. However, the tremendous progress of the civic learning movement over the last decade is threatened in Illinois and nationally.

For one, the transition to remote learning in K-12 has been highly inequitable as school districts and families navigate access to hardware and broadband, not to mention an overnight upheaval of the way we teach and learn. As I wrote previously, civic education already suffered from inequitable inputs with lasting implications for who participates in our democracy and benefits from related public policy outcomes.

Anecdotally, civic learning, and the social studies more generally, is being further marginalized as schools double down on tested subjects. This concern is particularly acute for grades K-5 where the social studies are already peripheral, but bleeds into the middle grades with the new civics course requirement coming this fall. Moreover, should schools pursue a blended learning approach this fall, will in-person direct instruction be restricted solely to reading and math, with social studies, science, and “specials” relegated to virtual-only environs?

Not on our watch! While social distancing during this pandemic is highly recommended, the social studies, and civic learning specifically, is core to the mission of public education and must be woven throughout the K-12 curriculum, in-person, online, or both.

Our civic education nonprofits have worked admirably to assist educators and parents with the abrupt transition to home schooling at scale (see our compiled “Resources for Continuity of Learning in Civics”), and some are better equipped than others for this purpose as civic knowledge is arguably easier to foster online than informed action or service learning (my colleague, Instructional Specialist Mary Ellen Daneels, wrote this provocative piece on teaching civic engagement during a pandemic). At the same time, our nonprofit partners are struggling financially as spring benefits were cancelled, grants suspended, and individual donations redirected to emergency responses.

These partners have long provided leadership and structure to an underdeveloped and underresourced field. We must ensure they have the resources to survive the pandemic, continue the digital transition already underway, and assist students, teachers, schools, and districts in navigating the recovery to follow.

The CivXNow Coalition, which the McCormick Foundation supports through grant funding and I serve on the steering committee, is calling for a $40 million competitive grant program for civic education nonprofits to navigate these difficult times and the digital transition, particularly those serving students of color and low-income students in urban and rural areas. Take your own informed action by contacting Senators Durbin and Duckworth and your Representative, reference this letter signed by over 550 individuals and nearly 100 organizations, and urge their support of this vital appropriation as Congress formulates its next relief and recovery legislation.

Congress, and Americans more generally, must understand the vital importance of an informed and engaged citizenry now more than ever. My friend and colleague Louise Dube, Executive Director of iCivics and leader of the CivXNow Coalition, argues that the current moment provides evidence of our civic strength as our federal system generates varied responses to the pandemic and the public has largely abided by local guidance. Civil society has also responded through PPE donations, support of food banks, and medical students, and retired doctors and nurses entering and re-entering the frontline health care response.

But cracks in the body politic are also evident as stay-at-home orders are challenged and some protests even invoked anti-Semitic slogans. Our Asian American friends, colleagues, and community members face new discrimination and hate crime threats given the virus’ origin and irresponsible public rhetoric. Civic learning is vital to developing an understanding of identity in youth and the value of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which, when realized, truly make America great. Our colleagues at Facing History and Ourselves curated helpful steps and resources to empower students to combat racism during this pandemic.

Social distancing itself has assumed red and blue political hues on the rush to reopen the economy and even to wear facemasks in public. But longstanding democratic fractures can also be healed through an orientation towards the collective good and stronger social capital, the bedrock of democracy and a source of strength during times of trial. Moreover, during crises, trust in institutions is imperative and can be rebuilt through an informed and engaged citizenry. Civic learning builds positive civic dispositions, strengthens communities, and undergirds institutional trust.

Finally, youth must have a voice in building more equitable systems as the United States shifts from managing the pandemic to economic recovery and preventative measures to ensure that future infectious disease outbreaks are better contained. High-quality, school-based civic learning opportunities, both in-person and online, build our collective capacity, with youth at the center, for relief, recovery, and reform in the difficult weeks, months, and years to follow.


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