This has not been the “back to school” we look forward to each year. In these early days of the new school year, it has already been an incredibly difficult time for students, families and teachers.
As a mom of four boys, I’m one of the countless parents struggling with the challenges of this new school year. And as the CEO of Teach For America, I’m also witnessing the profound impact all of this has on the students in the low-income communities we serve.
This year is dramatically different than we had hoped and much more difficult for students. Millions of students have to learn from home instead of in their classrooms with their teachers and classmates. It didn’t have to be like this. But it is our reality today. And the hard decisions about the lives, education, and needs of our kids have fallen on individual district leaders, principals, teachers, students, and parents, all trying to ensure our students can get an education safely.
It has been especially hard—as it always is—for our most vulnerable kids: for kids and families with the fewest resources; for children of color whose unmet needs stem from systemic racism and inequity; for those students who count on schools for so much more than an education.
And in the midst of this pandemic, our teachers are also holding their students through trauma when they experience and witness the persistent racism in our country, where the message is that their lives do not matter. Our students want and deserve so much better.
This all disproportionately harms students growing up in low-income communities and children of color. More than half of all students in America are beginning this school year online—but the numbers have huge differences based on race. One analysis found that 79% of Hispanic students and 75% of Black students are in online learning, much higher rates than White students. And in some low-income communities, thousands of students haven’t yet checked back in to start the new year at all. The digital divide and opportunity gaps are widening before our eyes.
We as Americans must rise to this challenge. One single year of learning means so much—and losses will be tremendously hard to make up and recover from later in life. Our children’s mental, physical and emotional well-being hangs in the balance as well.
We cannot allow this to be a lost year.
Teachers are working harder than ever to make sure their students are engaged and learning this school year and to provide the basic needs and support required for students to be successful. In partnership with Bellwether Education Partners and the support of Cognizant U.S. Foundation, we have identified some of the promising ways teachers are finding to teach and engage their students.
From the teachers I talk to, I hear some important common themes. Teachers are working to reach out to their students—many at risk of falling through the cracks—and building relationships with them and their families. They are assessing where their students are—academically, social-emotionally, and as they work to overcome trauma. And they are finding innovative ways to engage their students online and to help close the learning gaps.
I talk to corps members and school leaders, and I know that teaching in this moment is just hard. I am struck by the very human challenges people are facing: teachers and students alike touched by the trauma and enormous difficulty of everything we are experiencing this year; school leaders struggling with not only learning decisions for their students, but also their health and safety, in and out of school, amid constantly changing conditions. The emotional support our educators need is great.
But the stories of the amazing work our corps members are already doing in the classroom, and what our network of alumni are doing to lead through this crisis, inspire me. They are putting equity at the center of all they do. They are showing the kind of love, support, innovation, and commitment that meets our first promise to our kids: to provide them an excellent and equitable education that enables our students to learn, lead and thrive.
This is hard work—not only meeting the urgent needs of students but taking on the big systemic problems that hold kids back. But we will have failed our children if we don’t radically change what’s possible for kids and create a fundamentally different experience for our students. In this defining moment for our country, we have an opportunity—and obligation—to bring about a different future, one that is more equitable, more just, and more fair for all children.
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