by Sydney Albert
COVID-19 exposes how intertwined home and school is. It is impossible to treat education as separate from the rest of a child’s life, because we don’t live in a vacuum. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs demonstrates that kids cannot learn if they are not fed or do not have a safe place to sleep. As policymakers continue to lament the oft referenced “opportunity gap”, COVID-19 has provided the opportunity to acknowledge that addressing educational inequities cannot focus solely on academic solutions; they must address the whole child, and all their physical, social, and emotional needs. And in the context of COVID-19, whole child means whole family.
As part of the Color of Education 2020 Virtual Summit, Dr. Patricia Hilliard of the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation moderated a discussion between Yvette Richardson, a school social worker, Sil Ganzó, the founder and Executive Director of ourBRIDGE for Kids, Diego Mureño, a dual-immersion teacher, and Nancy Charles, CEO of the East Durham Children’s Initiative, in a session titled Racial Equity and the Whole Child: Impacts of COVID 19. Panelists discussed how during COVID-19 they learned to adapt their supports to address family needs such as food insecurity, job insecurity, and mental health services.
Schools were already providing some support to the whole child through programs such as free and reduced meals. However, the closure of schools quickly spurred recognition of food insecurities and other existing inequities and stressors. It is important to recognize that COVID-19 did not create new inequities; it only exacerbated the preexisting historical and structural barriers that limit success to subsets of our population.
Mureño describes inequity in terms of a product and a service. To be truly equitable, the system must match the product to the needs of the family, but also provide the necessary services to support use of that product. In the case of the digital divide, a hot button topic as education moved online, some schools sought to close that gap by providing laptops to their students. They failed to deliver, however, the necessary services to support that laptop, such as reliable internet access and technological training. And in some rural areas, as Richardson highlighted, even when the service was there, like a safe space for internet connectivity, the means of accessing that resource, such as transportation, was lacking.
Since inequities are multi-layered, addressing them requires a multi-pronged approach. Developing spaces within organizations that are welcoming and uphold justice language is one means of promoting equity. Furthermore, building a staff and leadership team that reflects and is representative of their own community is essential, as it communicates feelings of genuineness and eliminates the need for artificial translation. Educators should acknowledge their weaknesses, and recognize that those weaknesses are creating inequities in educational performance. Seeking help with those weaknesses, it will ultimately benefit the students. Pass the mic to the community whose voices need to be heard and empower those you are trying to reach. As Charles put it, we need to undue and individualize 400+ years of history, and abandon the one size fits all model.
As schools are starting to reopen, panelists voiced new concerns they had. They emphasized the intensified need for social and emotional learning in schools following the pandemic. COVID-19 has created a world full of uncertainty and disrupted routines, which can negatively impact a child’s trust. Isolation has also hindered the development of relationship skills and self-management. School is a crucial site of developing relationships among peers and adults, and engaging in self-regulation and co-regulation. The removal from a school environment erased that learning opportunity. As Richardson notes, there was already a gap in social and emotional skills between white students and students of color; COVID-19 only widened that existing gap. Returning to school will require an intentional onboarding process that emphasizes social and emotional skills to put kids into the productive mindset to learn and rebuild a sense of safety. Furthermore, schools need to transform into trauma-informed spaces of care. Students are coming back to school with a host of traumatic experiences due to the pandemic, and trauma lives in our bodies. Discipline practices such as out-of-school suspension only serve to retraumatize students and return them to a traumatic environment, instead of addressing the emotional baggage kids come to school with. If we want kids to engage with the education system, we must address their holistic needs first.
COVID-19 is not all gloom and doom, however. Mureño commented that teachers have come together to foster a transformation from focusing on “my kids” to “our kids”. The entire school staff has taken on a collective responsibility for their students, and is supporting each other to meet all the students’ needs. Community-based organizations have established lasting partnerships with pre-existing community resources to provide needed services, and are working to empower families to implement change. And perhaps most optimistically, the opportunity is now magnified to talk about student’s emotional capacity at any point in time. “Everyone who comes through that school door is an educator”, Richardson said, and therefore everyone needs to be aware of how to best address a kid’s social and emotional needs. It takes a village to educate a child.