COVID-19: Lack of Access in the American Education System (with Tracy Gray)

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with Managing Director at the American Institutes for Research, Tracy Gray, about the challenges and opportunites faced by distanced learning, as well as depending on technology in education now, and in the future.

July 16, 2020

In this episode, students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy talk with Managing Director at the American Institutes for Research, Tracy Gray, about the challenges and opportunites faced by distanced learning, as well as depending on technology in education now, and in the future.

About Tracy Gray:

Dr. Gray is a Managing Director at the American Institutes for Research, and currently leads the Center for Technology Implementation. Before working at AIR, she was Vice President for youth services at the Morino Institute and was responsible for the design and implementation of the Youth Development Collaborative. Dr. Gray was also the deputy executive director and chief operating officer for the Corporation for National Service that enabled more than 50,000 corps members to work in 1,500 programs throughout the United States. She is also a UCR School of Public Policy Advisory Board Member.

Learn more about Tracy Gray via

Podcast Highlights:

“Most schools and districts were ill-prepared to make this sudden transition...”

-       Tracy Gray on the topic of emergency distanced learning back in March as the country quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They also find themselves in these internet deserts, even if they went outside, having access to connectivity is far from a reality.”

-       Tracy Gray on the topic of the digital divide and the technological struggle many students will continue to endure as teaching continues remotely.

“It does offer an opportunity to really think about how we deliver education to students, what's important, and what are the systems that need to be in place...”

-       Tracy Gray on the topic of how COVID-19 will affect the future of education. She speaks about reconsidering the important support schools offer such as mental health and food services.


Tracy Gray (Managing Director at the American Institutes for Research)


Maddie Bunting (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Kamillah Pollard (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

Samuel Roberts (UCR Public Policy ‘20)

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

Subscribe to this podcast so you don’t miss an episode. Learn more about the series and other episodes via


  • COVID-19: Lack of Access in the American Education System (with Tracy Gray)

    Introduction: Welcome to the official podcast of the University of California Riverside school of public policy. I'm your host, Maddie Bunting. This podcast series, I will be talking with various voices in the public policy world about today's pressing societal issues. Join me to learn about potential solutions and interventions for today's biggest policy challenges, be they about health, the economy, the environment, or other societal problems impacting families in your community or the international community. Joining me today is Dean’s Brand Ambassador, Kamillah Pollard, and Dr. Tracy Gray. Dr. Gray is a managing director at American Institutes for Research and currently leads the Center for Technology implementation. Before working at AIR, Dr. Gray was vice president for youth services at the Marino Institute and was responsible for the design and implementation and the youth development collaborative. Dr. Gray was also the deputy executive director and chief operating officer for the Corporation for National Service that enabled more than 50,000 core members to work 1,500 programs throughout the United States. Dr. Gray is also a member of the UNHCR School of Public Policy Advisory Board. 

    Maddie Bunting: Kamillah and myself, we are both undergraduate students at the UCR School of Public Policy and we have our own personal experiences with this shift from in-person college life to online learning. And as a nationally recognized expert in education and technology implementation, I would love to ask you, how has online remote learning fast tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic? I know throughout the years, schools have been relying on technology a little more and more, but it seems at least for students, kind of all of a sudden this huge shift. So how has that process been fast-tracked by COVID-19? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, it's such a great question because as you noted, at the college level, students are all of a sudden finding themselves going from the traditional classroom to an online remote learning experience. And of course, in mid-March, all of our schools across the country had to close because of the pandemic. So what that meant was over 55 million students went from their traditional classrooms to their home. And as you can well imagine, most schools and districts were ill-prepared to make this sudden transition. It was not really something that even those technology enriched schools really were prepared to deal with. Offering all of their content, all of their classroom time over the Internet. And so, not surprisingly, we immediately were made aware of the fact that many of our students really did not have the necessary hardware, laptops and other types of technology devices available to them. And also underscore the fact that a significant number of our students don't have access to fast speed Internet. And they also find themselves in these internet deserts where even if they went outside, having access to connectivity was far from the reality. So over 12 million school children really found it almost impossible to complete the school work that was being required of them once we moved from the traditional schoolhouse to online learning from home. 

    Maddie Bunting: Wow, 12 million. That is such a large number. I assumed that that was the case, but just hearing that number kinda puts it more in reality that this really is a current problem. So as you mentioned, a lot of students aren't prepared for this fully online learning. What are the implications on both teaching, because I know teachers and professors happen going through a very difficult time as well. And learning for students in terms of achievement and equity of the sudden move to all online remote learning. Is testing the same as grading the same. I know, you know, in the short term, these past few months, at least my professors were very flexible, which was very kind. But I'm curious, do you think that will continue and has that been the case overall? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, as we have seen from looking at school districts around the country and also at the post-secondary level, many, many institutions have decided not to continue with their traditional testing. They have suspended the end of year tests in many instances. Again, back to the reality that so many students lacked access to the internet to take the online tests. And so tests have been suspended. And in terms of grading, even we've seen that the traditional A through F type grading has also been suspended in many, many instances. So really what was up is down and what was sideways goes the other way. And it's really turned education, our entire educational system really on its head. Where school districts and teachers and administrators, and now parents very much have to reflect on what it is we're offering students? How do we offer it to students? And of course, it's really exacerbated all of the inequalities. We knew we were there across the 14,000 school districts in the country, and also across different universities and colleges in terms of the quality of the education being delivered, the support systems that are in place, and just the whole educational experience. You see high-quality going, continuing even in the pandemic, where students have, if not a full day of access to education, they're at least getting something that approximates a full day of learning. As compared to other districts that are offering a paucity of what was provided to students in terms of actual content in reading and math and social studies. The basic courses that we take for granted that students are going to be learning. Those have been significant because schools we're prepared to provide the content online. And so we've just seen a real disparity being offered to students across the country.

    Kamillah Pollard: I think that's really interesting that you brought up with testing getting cancelled. And I know it makes it very difficult for a lot of students to be able to take these tests, including the SAT, the GRE, and even AP testing. So do you believe that this is going to affect these testing's later on whether it's the GRE and getting accepted into schools or the SAT, using for admissions into, from high school and undergraduate level colleges? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, one of the $360,000 questions that everybody is really scrambling to figure out the answer to. I think anyone who says they know for sure what's going to be happening probably doesn't really know because these decisions, even whether we're going to be opening school, K-12 school in August or September. That's not completely clear, as best one can tell from the reports coming out of districts around the country. I think school superintendents and state superintendents are really scrambling to open up the schools as soon as possible in terms of August and September. But as we know, we've seen the pandemic go from a lull in some places to really hitting a very sharp curve upward over the last month. And so it's really, anybody's guess what that's actually going to look like, which will have a direct impact on what types of tests will be required and how that will affect what will be required of seniors as they apply for college admissions. 

    Kamillah Pollard: With the question requiring testing and even transitioning towards remote learning. Like we need a lot of technology use for these students in order to participate or even be able to make this transition. And a lot of communities across America don't have this necessarily access to technology and the Internet. Some communities may not be able to afford it or, or even just have access to laptops and computers. What impact do you have the digital divide on these students and teachers will have with education? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, I think we're starting to see reports coming out from educators and public policymakers that are indicating that it is not going to be a positive outcome in terms of looking at the year end results. One recent study that's come out has concluded that in fact, students from low income families and those from under-resourced communities are going to be particularly affected by the break in traditional educational services. Not only are we talking about students from under-resourced communities, but also students with learning disabilities and those who have individualized education programs, our IEPs, that are developed for them. Those students are really going to feel the pinch of what's been going on. And there are estimates that in terms of reading, for example, what we're seeing is that students might in fact retain only 70% of their annual reading gains compared with a normal year. And projections for what people are referring to as the COVID slide in math might look even worse, depending upon the grade level. There are those researchers who speculate that students could lose between half and all of the academic growth that would be expected in an academic year. And these setbacks are particularly acute when you look at fifth graders and fifth grade, as you know, is that critical time in a student's academic career when they start tooling up for more complex tasks that prepare them for the upper grades. And so those students, if they don't have the opportunity to make up what's lost in this COVID pandemic era we're experiencing, could really feel the impact of this gap for their entire school career. So that is really of great concern. 

    Maddie Bunting: Wow, I, as a college student, I, I've, I can relate to, you know, higher education. But when I do think of K through 12, so many more and just very different questions arise and I mean, that's that's a huge statement. Has the impossibility of upholding students back a year or I mean, I'm not sure. I mean, to your point, it could really affect students if they don't learn what is critical, you know, K through 12, everything builds upon each other and I could see students really struggling if they do miss that critical information and history, science, math, reading, writing. Is that even in conversation or are our public schools considering shifting their plans for, for what to teach or with that beyond parents to consider holding their children back? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, that's that's such an important question. Certainly no one can make an overall statement about the 50 states, including the District of Columbia. What's going to be happening in the school, since there isn't a nationally mandated policy. Whether students will be held back is a question of great debate. And I think it most likely will be the case that parents may decide to hold their children back. Which of course comes with the myriad stigma of actually doing that. I have been hearing more and more about school leaders, recognizing the need to test students when they return to better determine what their needs are, where their challenges are, what their growth areas are., so that we're not assuming that students who are entering the seventh grade basically are coming in with this same level of skills plus or minus, to tackle the curriculum that's going to be presented to them. Because again, you'll have those students who over the summer will benefit from their parents reading to them, having supplementary coursework for them, maybe some tutors, books available at home. Whereas other children, due to no fault of their own, maybe parents are working long hours and don't have the time to try to supplement or fill in the gaps that have occurred because of this rapid move to online remote learning. And those students are really going to feel this pinch and find in the fall whether we're actually back in a traditional classroom or still involved with remote learning., that they are behind the curve in terms of what the actual grade level content is that's being offered in the fall. 

    Kamillah Pollard: And these statistics and what's going on is just really, it's shocking. And it really reminds me of the opportunity gap that's already occurring between students of color, low-income students, compared to the white or more privileged students in K through 12 grades. Do you think that this is going to increase that gap between the students? Or is there a way for us to help reverse this after everything ends? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, I think that it certainly will underscore in very bold, underscoring and exclamation points, the disparity that exists across school districts around the country. And we're also seeing from a recent parental poll from the ed trust, for example, that parents are very aware of the fact that there are gaps in their children's learning that they're seeing and the impact brought on by this rapid move to remote learning. One recent poll showed that over 38% of low-income families and 29% of families of color are concerned about access to distant learning because again, they don't have reliable internet at home. And also over 50% of these parents talked about the fact that they don't have access to technology. So they may have one laptop at home, but that laptop is being shared with the parents with the many children that they might have at home with two children, three children afford children. And so they may have a device at home, but they don't have a sufficient number of devices to enable parents to work at home and also their children to work at home. So this gap is really going to continue unless we can very quickly figure out a way to get the technology in the hands of students and also ensure that they not just have internet access. But as you know, being students at a university, you need fast internet access to download all of the curriculum content that you're expected to deal with during the school year. And then in addition, the realization that I'm moving to online or remote learning was that teachers were not prepared to teach online just because they might have some sense of comfort and familiarity with using technology devices that did not, by any means indicate that they knew how to teach students online, that they knew how to encourage them and keep them engaged. Nor did schools have the curriculum available online that teachers could use to continue their teaching. So at all levels and at all different links in the chain of what happens during the educational delivery to students, all of those links were either tested or broken in order to ensure that kids had what they needed to continue their studies.

    Kamillah Pollard: So it sounds like, well, there's a lot of things that are missing from this switch to online learning from in-person and I know a lot of students they learn from each other and group work or even social interactions. What do you think is lost from all these online remote educational experiences, especially for young students? And what are your concerns about social and emotional development of these students? 

    Dr. Tracy Gray: Well, we are in fact, seeing the impact of children being isolated and not able to interact with their friends and with others outside of their family that this is creating. According to pediatricians and other experts who are writing about this, this is having a direct impact on students both young and older because of the lack of social development and the sense of isolation and children suffering with this sense of trauma. From seeing not only the lack of interaction teachers that they had on a general day at school, but also particularly where there's a high concentration of COVID-19. We're seeing children who are traumatized by seeing members of their family and their teachers and their principals succumb to the virus. And so, whereas in the past, schools were able to offer support and continuity and a sense of safety for many students, that's totally absent now. And so it's, it's really left to parents who are trying to continue to work, whether they're working at home or having to leave the home to go to work. There, being given the responsibility to really try to fill in these gaps that could have been, in the past, filled by other adults, that students and children were interacting with other support systems and obviously their friends. So there is a growing concern about social and emotional well-being of children, particularly as the pandemic, continues to affect our communities. 

    Maddie Bunting: Yes, I, I've heard, which I think is wonderful, that people are finding a new respect for teachers and all that they do for our children. And it's a huge responsibility, it's a huge job and I think with this shift, people are seeing that even more. I'm curious, you know, I know you are an expert in technology implementation in education and not, not exactly replacing in person education with technology-based. But this pandemic has opened up a huge opportunity and a huge challenge, I see both sides. How do you think this pandemic will change the relationship between education and technology in the future?

    Dr. Tracy Gray: And that's such a great question. I think it is forcing educators and parents to really take a step back, even as they're trying to drink from a fire hose to figure out what the next steps are. But it does offer us the opportunity. Really think about how we deliver education to students, what's important and what are the systems that need to be in place. It's really turned the spotlight on the fact that school officials can handle the instructional logistics of schooling, but it's critical that all of the other complex networks of support that are offered to schools also need to be working together in terms of the public health officials and the mental health and of course, the delivery of food services. Making sure that students who are dealing with food insecurity have the kind of secure network and access to food that enables them to continue to be healthy. And it also has underscored the fact that there is significantly more thinking that needs to take place about what it means to deliver online education. Whether you're doing it for one class, or whether you're streaming lessons for the entire day, and that involves looking at new teaching styles, as well as curriculum materials that can be used both online and in the classroom. It really requires us to think about how we're using our teachers and what other kinds of supports could be made available. For example, if the pandemic is going to require that we reduce the number of students who are physically in a classroom at any time, how can we use college students and other adults who might be interested or available because they've lost their job due to the pandemic? How can we help them support teachers and parents in the education of children? One thinks of AmeriCorps and the deployment of young people who many of whom are in America or work in schools. Well, maybe what we need to do is figure out how we can create a much larger and much more expansive core of individuals who can serve as coaches and teachers and mentors to help fill in the gaps here that are going to continue to be gaps as long as we're faced with this pandemic. And also once the pandemic has passed, hopefully sooner rather than later, thinking about ways that we can really seriously addressed the disparity that exists across school districts in under-resourced and low-income communities to ensure that their students are given the opportunity to have access to high-quality educational experiences like other children in more highly resourced community, yet, on a regular basis. 

    Outro: This Podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. I’m Maddie Bunting, till next time.