School After COVID-19

Now Is Not the Time to Let Down the Students Who Need Us the Most

After the unprecedented global pandemic that disrupted — not one — but two separate school years, educators are finally preparing to welcome students back to full-time, in-person instruction in the upcoming year.

Educators are vaccinated, excited and hopeful. After a prolonged period of remote learning, they’re looking forward to seeing all of their students face-to-face again in the classroom. But at the same time, many have also been feeling anxious, overwhelmed and overworked. The Delta variant has only added to teachers’ concerns. 

It’s only natural to be feeling this way right now. But for our nation’s most vulnerable youth, getting things right isn’t an option — it’s a must.

Students and Families Pushed to the Brink

Underserved students have experienced the impact of the pandemic more severely in terms of trauma and learning disruption. Neighborhoods with higher percentages of people of color have seen heightened rates of COVID-19 deaths, and they have had fewer resources to manage the long period of at-home learning. Many children living in under-resourced neighborhoods had no choice but to make do without access to adequate tools for online learning, struggle with increased food insecurity and push forward with a lack of adequate health care.

Simultaneously, Americans are confronting historical racism and trauma brought on by police brutality and a lack of accountability. Think you’ve had it rough over the past year? Imagine dealing with all of that on top of the pandemic — it’s pushed students and families from under-resourced communities to the brink. 

As the former founding principal of a charter elementary school predominantly serving Latinx students on Chicago’s Lower West Side, who now serves as chief academic officer of an organization that develops school leaders, I’ve seen firsthand the inequities our nation’s underserved students face on a daily basis.

Kids Need Wraparound Services, A Whole Child Approach and Rigorous Academics

At Bartolomé de las Casas Charter School, I anchored my work to three tenets: a focus on rigorous academics; a holistic approach to child development; and providing wraparound services for families. With this approach, I knew our school could achieve the outcomes our community deserved. 

Our families relied on the resources and network of support we provided because inequitable local, state and federal policies and practices have a tremendous impact and ripple effect on our communities. It forces schools to be so much more than just a place of learning for students. 

These tenets are even more important now. The broader systems that are in place have failed our underserved youth, plain and simple. Now is not the time that we fail them as educators. We have to navigate through the obstacles, build stronger bonds with our teams and do what is necessary to make sure another generation of students is not left behind.

If we fail, the consequences will be dire.

While all students are at risk of learning loss due to the pandemic, research shows the school shutdowns could compound the achievement disparities across income levels and between white students and students of Black and Latinx heritage.

Working with school leaders from around the country as they began transitioning to hybrid learning models over the first several months of this year, I had the privilege of observing the strategies of some incredibly hardworking, dedicated, and thoughtful educators. Those who were successful implemented measured, well-thought-out approaches. Not least among them were supporting the social and emotional development of students and being sensitive to the trauma students, families and staff have experienced. 

At Ednovate-South LA College Prep High School in Los Angeles, school leader Ally Wright put intense one-on-one outreach to families in place. Principal Wright did home visits with any student who was chronically absent or had a known challenge that needed more intensive attention and individualized support. She conducted student focus groups to check in on them and get input around social connectedness. Advisory time was the place where teachers could lean in with relationship-building activities and social and emotional check-ins to keep a pulse on all students’ needs.

The true purpose of all of these types of efforts is ensuring our students are prepared to thrive in life.

As we return to full-time, in-person instruction, educators need to fight the urge to run with academic recovery on day one. The urgency of unfinished learning is real, but the proper environment needs to be reestablished first so that teachers and students can thrive. Take the time to interrupt inequities, reimagine systems and reconnect with students, families and staff in meaningful ways. 

Interrupt inequities 

  • Create plans to respond to the trauma our communities have experienced and may continue to experience.

Reimagine systems

  • Set aside time to reestablish routines and procedures for students. Routine provides a sense of comfort and normalcy. Rethink old routines and ensure those you establish for reentry foster an environment that cultivates a love of learning, where students feel known and cared for. 

Reconnect in meaningful ways

  • Be intentional about relationship building and make concerted efforts to reestablish (or establish) relationships among students, families and staff — some who have never met each other in person. 

It’s been an honor to see what school leaders have done to ensure educational equity for their students, especially in this defining moment at the crossroads between the pandemic and the world that lies ahead.

Catherine Burns
Dr. Catherine Burns is chief academic officer of Accelerate Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization working to close the achievement gap for America’s underserved students.

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