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Ken Chatoor and Victoria Barclay — To address the K-shaped economic recovery, we must also address the K-shaped learning recovery

The long-term economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening inequality in Canada and is a growing concern for citizens and policy-makers. This manifestation of inequality has been referred to as the ‘K-shaped economic recovery,’ a term which describes the bifurcated outcomes that are largely positive for highly educated and high-income earners, and largely negative for lower-income workers with fewer educational credentials.  

There is substantial focus on the K-shaped economic recovery for current workers in the labour market. Early studies show that lower-income earners are disproportionately affected by job losses during the pandemic. These same studies show that higher-income workers are more likely to have stable and flexible jobs that allow them to shift to a work-from-home model during the pandemic, and thus are less impacted financially.

For children in families that have been economically hurt by the pandemic, there are short- and long-term consequences for both K-12 and postsecondary learning. Many are already struggling to navigate an education system where one’s family’s income and access to capital have a greater influence on one’s learning outcomes. For example, some students can participate in remote school from a private space with their own device using reliable internet access. For low-income families, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened internet access. Prior to remote learning, students who could not afford a personal computer or specialized software often had access through school computer labs. However, these disparities exist for more than just schoolwork. Remote school prevents students from accessing breakfast and snack programs which many families rely on due to food insecurity.  In-person schooling enables a learning experience where these inequities can be partially mitigated by everyone having access to the same devices and resources while on-site.

In the long term, we know that parental social capital can translate to intergenerational effects. Reports by HEQCO show that parental education and income influence a child’s decision to pursue postsecondary education (PSE) and impact their labour market outcomes. Reports by the OECD confirm that parental income significantly influences social mobility across most developed countries. Further, these studies suggest that the ability of those from lower economic backgrounds to move into higher economic backgrounds is becoming less likely over time. Thus, intergenerationally, wealthier families are likely to remain wealthy, and poorer families are likely to remain poor. The 2008 recession accelerated growing income inequality, and early evidence of pandemic economic impacts shows similar effects. This trend risks undermining the meritocratic assumptions about how our society and economy should work. At the highest level, addressing this problem requires government solutions that create equity by assisting those without advantages such as intergenerational resources.

For those on the lower arm of the K-shaped learning recovery for PSE students, continued efforts by government to improve internet access, educational quality and affordability are a positive first step. Ensuring that PSE services and academic programming are accessible to all students in the online setting will help reduce the severe inequitable consequences that impact students even beyond their lifetime. It is critical to undertake this work from an intersectional perspective; newcomer status, race, gender, and living with a disability — as well as type of disability — all play a key role in one’s ability to access PSE.

Much of the focus on worsening inequality through the K-shaped recovery has rightfully been about adults in the labour market, where gains and losses are occurring in unequal ways along the lines of income and socioeconomic status. We must keep in mind that what happens to parents impacts their children. Ensuring that all students have equal access to the resources they need for educational success is an important step towards leveling the playing field.

Ken Chatoor is a senior researcher and Victoria Barclay is a research intern at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

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