Across America, teachers and administrators have managed to cobble together classes, whether through in-person attendance, virtually or a hybrid. Getting this strangest of school years up and running has been an all-consuming task for educators, who have been thrust into a role as front-line essential workers. But now we need to start looking at the next steps, especially for disadvantaged students.
COVID-19 feels like a category 4 hurricane. Right now, we are simply riding out the storm. As with all storms, as we get COVID-19 under control, we know it will leave long-term damage in its wake. A study by McKinsey & Company predicts more than a million at-risk students may drop out of school and millions of other students will never achieve their potential. The cost to our country in lost economic opportunity and lower wages for these young men and women is an estimated $110 billion a year.
We Know Which Kids Are Most Threatened
Cherish Our Children Inc. is a Houston nonprofit that works with students who have had a parent in prison. These students were already in danger of falling through the cracks before COVID-19. During the shutdown in the spring, their stress levels increased, along with food and housing insecurity. For many, school had been one of the few stable forces in their lives, but when classes went virtual in March, much of that connection was lost.
National trends reflect what we saw in Houston. At-risk students became increasingly distracted, disengaged and discouraged. Half of the teenagers who responded to a survey by Commonsense Media reported that they weren’t regularly logging in to online classes.
The McKinsey study found that students of color were particularly impacted. It estimated that around 80% of Black and Hispanic students were receiving low quality or, too often, no remote instruction at all. The study also predicts that low-income students could fall a full year behind in their studies.
It will take aggressive intervention, but we can change that narrative. Adding technology or putting more pressure on our educators to “teach harder” won’t fix it.
We are losing our at-risk students because they are overwhelmed by uncertainty, loss of connection and fear of the unknown. To paraphrase one principal, teaching only works when students are emotionally ready to learn. To use more therapeutic language, we need to tap into social and emotional learning to help children who have experienced trauma and poverty get out of “survival brain” and into “learning brain.”
In normal times, students’ social and emotional needs are typically met through active partnerships between schools and nonprofit service providers like ours, often through in- or after-school programs. Now even that is threatened. A survey by the Afterschool Alliance found that nearly every after-school program is deeply concerned about funding, and six out of 10 programs may not survive the COVID-19 downturn.
Fred Rogers, Mr. Rogers to most of us, famously told fearful children, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Right now, the helpers need help to be there for the students.
Just like the recovery that follows a storm, we can repair the damage this pandemic is causing our students. First, we must recognize the need. Then we must plan for it. Finally, we must fund it.
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