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Tom Barkin

My Top Takeaways From District Dialogues

Tom Barkin
June 29, 2021

Tom Barkin

President, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond

Visit District Dialogues for video highlights from the Richmond Fed's recent conversations about educational disparities and COVID-19.

We spent the spring talking to educators, administrators, researchers and policymakers about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected students and what we can do to help close the gaps. We learned a lot — and it wasn’t always what we were expecting.


  • White students had more access to in-person school. Overall, black and Hispanic students were less likely to be given the option to return to in-person school. But even when students did have the option to return to in-person school, minority families were more likely to remain virtual — perhaps because they faced higher infection and fatality rates from COVID-19. But it also means these students may face greater learning loss as research shows that virtual learning is an imperfect substitute for face-to-face instruction. Income and wealth were a contributing factor, as higher-income families had more resources for private schools, tutors and learning “pods.”
  • Parents are going to need help. We heard from educators across the region that parental involvement, especially in lower-income communities where students are already at risk, is a challenge, whether that’s staying home to help kids get online or driving them to extra tutoring sessions. It’s not because parents don’t want to help — it’s because they’re riding a bus for hours to get to work, as we heard in Yemassee, South Carolina; or because they’re themselves looking for work; or because they don’t have a car. Solutions need to recognize and address these barriers.
  • We have effective tools to increase access to higher education — we need to expand them. Despite the differences in their schools, both Ángel Cabrera and Meredith Woo advocated for a major expansion of the federal Pell Grant program, which gives grants to undergraduate students with exceptional financial need and generally don’t have to be repaid. We’ve come to similar conclusions from our own research and outreach on the potential upside of Pell Grants, specifically allowing students to use Pell Grants at community colleges to pay for noncredit workforce training and credential programs that would benefit students, schools, employers and taxpayers.
  • More money alone isn’t the solution. Allocating money is just the beginning — we also need to make a concerted effort to distribute the money to where it’s needed most and reduce the hang-ups that make it hard to spend. That requires effective alignment through partnerships — nonprofits, local governments, and private companies pulling in the same direction — to build awareness and capacity in communities.

Amid all the challenges, though, we learned about some unexpected silver linings.

  • Stimulus funding helped schools meet long-standing goals. For example, we talked to administrators who were able to purchase computers, mobile devices and other technology that had been on their wish lists for years. Vance-Granville Community College, in North Carolina, used stimulus funds to buy tractor trailers for its new truck driver training course.
  • Virtual learning helped meet the needs of some underserved populations. We learned about incarcerated students in Baltimore, for example, who gained access to materials and instruction they’d never had before — and thrived.

By most measures, the pandemic may be in the rearview mirror — infections are falling, vaccinations are rising, businesses are reopening, and schools are planning to resume in-person instruction in the fall. Still, our period of remote learning has led to new challenges, including addressing learning loss and its implications for labor force participation and access to higher education. I greatly appreciate all who joined us for this dialogue.

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