‘Wraparound’ services crucial to school reopenings

Trauma and emotional toll of pandemic need attention

IT’S JUNE 2021 and, finally, most children have returned to full-time in-person school. Teachers are reconnecting with students whose experiences over the last 16 months vary widely: a student who lost a parent to COVID-19, another whose family has been stressed by job loss, food insecurity, and mental health challenges, another who is reeling from a year of isolation and fear, and another who quickly embraces the return to routine and friends.

As we emerge from the pandemic, understanding and responding to the unique experiences, strengths, and needs of each student and family is a prerequisite to recovery and integral to a 21st century approach to education.

Before the pandemic, 52 percent of children were in households with income low enough to be eligible for free or reduced lunch in school. In Massachusetts, child poverty, homelessness, and mental health needs were steadily on the rise. And then COVID-19 hit.

Impacts of the pandemic on children are not yet fully understood. But long-standing research on the effects of poverty on child development make clear that economic disruption, lack of access to food, stable housing, enriching experiences, and protective relationships are all associated with deprivations and stresses that can impede healthy development and readiness to learn. Yet science also demonstrates that children are resilient and replete with strengths. The impacts of scarcity and stress can be countered with relationships, resources, and opportunities for children and their families.

The Biden-Harris administration and Congress are paying attention. The American Rescue Plan increased the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under age 6 and $3,000 for those under age 18. Monthly checks will begin on July 15. It increased access to food, health, and mental health care, rental assistance, internet connectivity, child care, afterschool programs, and resources to address domestic violence and child abuse. The three stimulus packages passed in 2020 and 2021 include over $190 billion for K-12 education.

The Child Tax Credit, now fully refundable, is expected to cut child poverty in half. Coupled with other investments, ingredients for transformational change are beginning to course through our federal and state bureaucracies.

Massachusetts has been readying for a moment like this. For years, advocates, educators, researchers, and policymakers have advanced social-emotional learning, trauma informed care, safe and supportive schools, systems of student support, expanded Medicaid reimbursements for schools, and improved access to comprehensive services, mental health care, and extended learning opportunities. The Student Opportunity Act, passed in 2019 to more equitably fund public education, asks districts to consider expenditures on “social services to support students’ social-emotional and physical health.”

These changes build on a National Commission finding that emphasis on social, emotional, and cognitive development is necessary to accelerate academic learning. This is true for all students — but especially Black, brown, and low-income students who are navigating both embedded systemic inequalities and fresh COVID-era challenges.

As more children and youth return to in-person school “wraparound” comprehensive services are no longer optional. Access to supports and opportunities must become a regular part of how schools operate because they play a pivotal and preventive role in supporting children and youth’s mental health, social-emotional development, and academic learning.

Comprehensive services can be coordinated effectively and cost-efficiently by schools so that taxpayer investments lead to improved learning outcomes and lifelong opportunities for students. How schools can do this is demonstrated by an evidence-based model of “integrated student support,” City Connects. The model was developed 20 years ago in the Boston Public Schools and is incubated at Boston College, where I work.

Researchers find that City Connects significantly improves student academic and social-emotional outcomes, especially for low-income, Black, Latinx, and immigrant students.

A trained student support staff member, usually a school counselor or social worker, serves as a “coordinator” in a school, working closely with teachers, staff, families, students, and community agencies to develop, and ensure delivery of, comprehensive individualized support plans for each student. Aided by technology, the coordinator leverages school- and community-based resources, relationships, and opportunities to address each child’s unique constellation of strengths and needs. For one student, it may be math support, participation in an after school theater production, and dental care. For another student, it may be participation in a social skills group, literacy support, a mentor, weekly food packages, and an after school sports program.

A recent paper published in Prevention Science by researchers at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education, shows that for every dollar invested in City Connects, and the services and resources to which students and families are connected, there is a return to taxpayers of $3. The paper explains that the efficiencies in Boston schools with City Connects have three drivers. First, support is universal, systematic, and preventive, reaching all students, not only those in crisis. Second, the coordinator integrates comprehensive support into the day to day functioning of the school, allowing more cohesiveness across efforts to address crisis, trauma, discipline and safety, social-emotional learning, and academics. Third, support is tailored to the strengths and needs of each student across all domains of development using a data-informed approach.

The study found that, on average each child benefitted from an additional $5,400 worth of services from community partners. These pre-existing investments were corralled to support child wellbeing and readiness to learn, driving outcomes.

There is a transformational shift in our understanding about why and how to more effectively support children and families. This knowledge meets the moment, replete with reasons and resources to take a 21st century approach to student support.

Joan Wasser Gish is director of strategic initiatives at the Boston College Center for Optimized Student Support and a former member of the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care.


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