3 priorities for schools in the COVID-19 era

Greater support is crucial for children in poverty

REOPENING SCHOOLS PRESENTS a lot of unknowns. Budgets, class sizes, and health protocols are up in the air. But one matter is settled: Whether education happens in person or online, students’ academic learning depends in large measure on their physical and social-emotional wellbeing.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, during this past decade of relative economic prosperity, there were concerns about the overall wellbeing of Massachusetts children. Many were living below the federal poverty line, homeless, or experiencing depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions. The number of “high needs” students in schools climbed year after year.

COVID-19 is accelerating these trends. The shift to virtual schooling, social distancing, and the growing and insidious impacts of illness, job loss, hunger, child abuse and domestic violence, housing instability, and other family stresses mean that many more students’ conditions for learning and wellbeing are under threat.

Researchers who study the sciences of learning and child development have an increasingly good understanding of why the experiences of poverty — or a pandemic — can undermine students’ readiness to learn. Child development occurs simultaneously across and between the academic, social, emotional, and physical domains. A combination of complex interactions between genes and experiences at home, in school, and in the community shape how children learn and grow. The influences can be positive — such as trusting relationships with family members, teachers, and coaches — or negative, such as persistent stresses created by family economic instability and trauma. And these impacts can support, or undermine, students’ development and readiness to focus, engage, and learn in school.

The many ways that schools support children’s healthy development and learning have been revealed during the COVID closures. As children and youth were torn from peers, teachers, support staff, routines, food, and technology, educators and administrators sprang into action to continue serving students and their families. School districts set up grab-n-go meal distribution sites, contacted families to find out which students needed devices, set up hot spots, helped families get access to wifi, helped teachers connect with their students on-line, and offered social-emotional supports including tele-health connections for individual and group mental health services.

But these important, and sometimes heroic, activities have also revealed the challenges of coordinating services without a comprehensive and systematic approach to student and family support. What about the child of essential workers who can’t get herself and her siblings to the meal pick up spot? What about the family with parents sickened — or worse — by the coronavirus? What about the child newly assigned to a foster care home suddenly without the familiarity of school or family? What about the student whose sense of possibility was tied to theater or sports or the refuge of school, who is not logging into classes?

Key to ensuring equity during and after the pandemic is an approach that understands and responds to the unique circumstances, strengths, and needs of each student and their family.

Whether students are attending school in person or online, schools can intentionally build a coordinated system of support that reaches each and every student and is comprehensive to help address the root causes of academic and social-emotional challenges. A student who is not completing school work during the pandemic may be working to support their family, caring for siblings, experiencing grief or depression, or unable to connect to the internet. Each root cause necessitates a different response, and may include services to address inequalities tied to the educational opportunity gap  — like access to healthy food, income supports, stable housing, and health care.

In the coming months, education leaders will be making hard choices amidst a lot of uncertainty. Here are three priorities that are necessary to adapt schools, and support students, to be resilient in the face of COVID:

Invest in support staff. Educational recovery and progress will depend not only on pedagogy, but on the conditions that impact students’ physical and social-emotional wellbeing inside and outside the classroom. As schools navigate the in-person and on-line divide, credentialed support staff, like school social workers and counselors, can contribute to the creation of a safe and responsive school culture key to sustaining connections and be empowered to engage in evidence-based practices — including mental health and integrated wraparound supports — to address the many factors that impact student learning. Some of these practices are featured in the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy’s Back-to-School Blueprint.

A core evidence-based practice is universal screening and needs assessment. In an era when no student is untouched by the unfolding national trauma of COVID-19, every student is at risk and every family is vulnerable to instabilities that can impact education. In Methuen, every student in grades 3-12 is screened for common concerns like anxiety and depression to aid in early identification and prevention. In Boston, families have recently been asked about their wellbeing, housing stability, food security, and economic needs, a trend that is extending as districts use “community needs” surveys to understand socioeconomic factors that can impact student learning.

Once student and family needs have been identified, effective response to these varied factors requires a system to coordinate resources, relationships, and opportunities relevant to each student and family. Schools can create basic infrastructure to support implementation of a universal, comprehensive system of supports for students and families. This includes providing teachers, and others in regular contact with students, clear guidance on questions to ask and how to share concerns that may arise; a systematic way — aided by technology — of reviewing and responding to those concerns; identifying supports available in school, the community, or online; and following up so that no student falls through the cracks.

This type of child- and family-centered approach to student support is vital to helping students through the pandemic and beyond. Educational leaders can act now to lay a foundation for a future in which all students receive the supports they need to grow and learn — a future in which schools are 21st century engines of opportunity for all.

Meet the Author

John Crocker

Guest Contributor, Methuen Public Schools
Meet the Author

Meet the Author

Paul Hyry-Dermith

Guest Contributor, Brookline Center for Community Mental Health
Meet the Author

John Crocker is director of school mental health and behavioral services for the Methuen Public Schools and executive director of the Massachusetts School Mental Health Consortium. Chad D’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy. Paul Hyry-Dermith is director of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health’s BRYT program and a former principal and assistant superintendent in the Holyoke Public Schools. Joan Wasser Gish is a director at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development’s Center for Optimized Student Support.