Any Plan for Safely Reopening Schools Must Address the Whole Child

Jun 24, 2020 4:14:00 PM


The challenge of safely educating children in high poverty school districts during the pandemic is glaring. A recent analysis of Philadelphia showed many students essentially dopped out when schools closed. And in Boston, one in five students “could be virtual dropouts whose formal education stopped two months ago when schools shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.” 

The matter of a safe return to school weighs heavily on me as a public school parent of two sons who attend the high-poverty Cincinnati Public Schools. My focus here is Detroit (not Cincinnati), as it allow for some analytical distance in considering solutions on a topic for which I have an emotional investment. I am worried about my own children. 

In my experience, [pullquote]any strategy to improve educational quality in high-poverty school districts that does not simultaneously address issues outside the classroom is no strategy at all.[/pullquote] The same applies for preventing student attrition during a pandemic. In looking to solutions for keeping students engaged and on-track during a pandemic, impoverished school children cannot be expected to go it alone.

As an education policy officer at Cincinnati-based KnowledgeWorks Foundation, I was deeply involved in efforts to develop cross-sector P-16 networks throughout Ohio that facilitated all hands on deck regional approaches to improving educational outcomes. In the Cincinnati region, a model called Strive emerged (that has since gone national) that took this work to the next level. As David Brooks wrote of Strive,

Children don’t leave behind their emotions, their diet, their traumas, their safety fears, their dental problems and so on when they get to school. If you’re going to help kids, you have to help the whole kid all at once. 

When I left KnowledgeWorks to serve as the first Executive Director of (now defunct) Excellent Schools Detroit, my first inclination—coming in as an outsider—was to get a sense of community assets that could be mobilized to address both academic and non-academic barriers to learning. I learned that community building infrastructure was under construction via The Skillman Foundation-led Good Neighborhoods Initiative, “a 10-year, $100 million commitment to six neighborhoods where nearly one-third of the city’s young people lived at the time. The aim was to ensure that children living in those places were safe, healthy, well educated and prepared for adulthood.” These neighborhoods were the areas that I then believed Strive-like “cradle to career” networks could be developed.

Ten years later, Detroit might consider deploying the Good Neighborhoods as remote learning hubs for the coming school year. For their progress toward goals likewise offer conditions of readiness for playing such a role, including:

  • Incidents of youth victimization reduced by 40%.
  • Property and violent crimes reduced by 40%.
  • 90% of young people feel safe inside school.
  • 90% of young people feel safe on their way to and from school.
  • 80% of youth in each target neighborhood report high quality supports from neighborhood adults.

[pullquote]If schools must be turned inside out to rely on remote learning, then direct it to areas where comprehensive youth-support networks exist[/pullquote]—such as the Good Neighborhoods. (Strive also has networks in 70 communities.)

For this strategy to work, the district would need to allow the church, the community center and other neighborhood facilities to be deployed as remote learning sites. Thanks to a grant from Skillman, DTE Energy Foundation and Quicken Loans funding an “at scale solution to address the historical digital divide ... all enrolled DPSCD students and families will receive wireless tablets and internet access through a $23 million investment.”

Many school districts are looking at implementing hybrid schedules that alternate in-school and remote learning, as Cincinnati Public Schools is examining. DPSCD schools could likewise decrease student populations on alternating days. In doing so, they facilitate social distancing and other preventive measures inside the school building, while ensuring students remain on track when their learning occurs virtually

Greg Harris

Greg Harris is the state director of StudentsFirst Ohio. A former teacher, he is a father to two Ohio public school students. Harris believes educational opportunity is the best antidote to a life of poverty and struggle, and it drives his purpose: putting students first.

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