This piece was originally published in EdWeek Market Brief on March 10, 2021.
Last spring, no one knew how much chaos the pandemic would impose on our lives, or how long the pain would last. The weeks have stretched into months as COVID-19 continues to spread in many parts of the country. The return to “school” in the forms of in-person classes, virtual coursework, and pandemic pods has proven no less chaotic than the abrupt transition to virtual learning we experienced last spring.
Unfortunately, very few of the conversations around school reopenings have been about students and what is best for our children, or the families struggling with job loss, illness, or food insecurity unable to meet all of their children’s needs when school buildings are closed. The closures of school buildings are at the core of many challenges families are experiencing that have to do with more than just learning — a clear sign that our schools play a critical social service function for students.
Schools have long provided several social services for students—everything from mental health and nutrition to career guidance. When schools offer these types of wraparound services, students’ achievement rates improve. Conversely, when schools fail to provide comprehensive support, educators are overextended, leading to high burnout rates.
We have relied too heavily on teachers and schools to provide these various services our children require without providing adequate resources and budget to do so. The stress the pandemic has put on school systems has exposed how untenable this model is, physically, emotionally, and financially for everyone involved.
Schools Need to Help Teachers Support Student Well-Being
COVID-19 has given us a chance to rethink how many of these essential services, including education, mental health, and nutrition, schools should carry alone.
We now have an opportunity to reimagine what our schools can provide for children. We can do so by tapping into a broader range of community resources to share responsibility. Low-income and special needs children are at the most risk of suffering consequences for a lifetime, as many school districts cannot sustain the temporary relief models used last spring. The ongoing, multifaceted crisis many districts face from COVID-19 continues to threaten the emotional and physical well-being of our most vulnerable children.
In May, a survey reported on by The Conversation found that one of the most stressful aspects of teachers’ jobs during the pandemic is addressing the needs of vulnerable students. The report also cited that teachers need more support from parents and administrators. So what can we do to help?
Here are three immediate steps we can take to expand the help and support we extend to our teachers and students.
- Schools must prioritize children who have been impacted the most this fall. School boards, administrators, educators, and community organizations can work together to spread the responsibility of childcare and other essential services across different platforms and services. State and federal agencies, local companies, and nonprofit organizations can all step in to provide additional support, funding, and relief. Pandemic pods have been an example of an immediate solution, and some nonprofits have stepped up to provide equity in this model for every student, including homeless students. For example, Nevada has created the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy to provide micro-schooling options for those who cannot afford pandemic pods.
- Rather than scrambling to support students properly during times of crisis, school districts can coordinate with parents and community partners to proactively provide educators with the budgets and resources they need. For instance, in Minnesota, Belle Plaines Public School District supplemented its mental health support for students by partnering with a community-based intensive therapeutic services center for teenagers. School districts and communities across the country should look to models like this when coming up with their own plans to increase support for students this school year.
- Perhaps the most urgent service we can offer students and teachers right now is social-emotional learning. Policymakers, local governments, school boards and districts need to allocate within their budgets so that schools can implement SEL programs for PreK-12 classes as well as teacher training to implement those programs. Educators ought to offer all students the time and space to process their emotions and build the skills required to persevere through challenges, like the pandemic. To that end, carving out time for SEL in their daily schedules (online and in person), providing reliable resources to both teachers and families, and empowering teachers to put relationships first are important steps to take. Durham Public Schools in North Carolina has been solely virtual for the first nine weeks of school, and has dedicated Wednesdays to social-emotional learning. They call them Wellness Wednesdays, and there is no instruction on those days, just social-emotional learning. This is a districtwide commitment to making time for SEL when students and teachers need it most.
We cannot expect educators to manage and support students’ mental health and other needs when their own have been overlooked. As we try to adapt to all of the new challenges of remote or hybrid learning, we ought to be intentional in how we provide both children and teachers resources designed to support them. That’s why we must see districts partner with community organizations, parent associations, and more.
For most of us, COVID-19 has represented a significant and ongoing disruption in our lives. But we continue to move forward, and our educational system can, too. We have a chance to work with a new generation of parents, educators, and community leaders that has been forever altered by the pandemic — to rethink how to help juggle all the priorities surrounding education and build something better.
We must find creative solutions and work together to build a solid foundation upon which we can layer a series of wraparound services for children that can be implemented immediately and expanded upon over time. By doing so, we can design our educational system in such a way that it can weather a global pandemic while still meeting the long-term needs of students, families, and teachers.