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The debate about reopening schools this fall has exploded across the nation with new pressure from the Trump administration, which has threatened to withhold federal funding from schools that don’t fully open for in-person classes. This comes on the heels of a recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in no uncertain terms called on school leaders to make plans with “with a goal of having students physically present in school.”
In-person learning is certainly optimal if schools successfully implement social-distancing strategies to protect students and teachers. But as education leaders move in that direction, they should build on what science tells us about child development and learning to ensure that students get what they need.
Three priorities can pave the way, setting a foundation for a better system long after the pandemic is over: 1) remember the whole child; 2) apply the lessons of quality community-based and early childhood programs; and 3) improve services for English language learners and students with disabilities.
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Consider how students have been affected by these past few months. They will not arrive in their classrooms as fresh-faced blank slates. They will arrive with the impact of months of pandemic stress or parents’ job losses combined with weeks of emotionally charged protests for racial justice still pulsing within them.
They will have seen people scared and dying — some of them watching on their TVs or smartphones, others experiencing the pain personally as extended families cope with Covid-19 deaths.
And yet, to contain the virus, schools will have to create systems that work against the kind of bonding and mental-health breaks that these students will need. Extracurricular activities, sports and assemblies will be canceled. Close connection will be discouraged. The wearing of masks will make it nearly impossible to interpret subtle cues about behavior and emotions.
In short, students and their families will have new and complicated social and emotional needs as well as academic ones. But deep down, anyone who has worked with today’s students knows that much of this isn’t actually that new.
Trauma, economic distress, and physical and mental health issues have been part of the lives of many students long before the coronavirus arrived. There is no question that social-distancing guidelines will present major challenges, but proactive leaders can also take this as a moment to rethink schooling altogether and take steps toward building systems that work for students who need the most support.
There are lessons from K-12 and early childhood education models to help guide the way. Take, for example, the community schools model, which links up with health services and provides family support, such as help with filling out job applications, for parents as well as their students.
Or approaches that emphasize the whole child, not just worrying about passing academic tests but also ensuring that students are healthy and emotionally supported. A new model gaining strength, which combines elements of the first two, is First 10, which provides a continuum of educational support to children from birth through age 10.
All of these approaches recognize that to be able to learn, children must first have their needs met. And there’s no doubt that this means making significantly more investments in communities of color, which have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic and have always had the least-resourced schools.
Taking this comprehensive view of children’s learning and development is more commonplace in early childhood programs, where nurturing relationships and family engagement are key. But it’s not just preschoolers who need this kind of approach — entire school systems can rebuild using this model and, in doing so, they will be better equipped to help students who need extra support, including students with disabilities and English language learners.
To provide the tailored attention, instruction and services that these students need, educators could begin by learning to communicate more authentically with families, learning from parents about what is and isn’t working. This is a first step toward actually reaching the kids who need the most.
Meanwhile, to allow for safe social-distancing, district leaders could favor in-person learning for young children by spacing out their pre-K through fifth-grade students in elementary, middle and high-school spaces when older students are learning virtually, in online internships or on the job. As with community school models, institutions could partner with local organizations to make safe use of currently closed spaces, such as libraries and museums. They could even plan for more learning in outdoor spaces, transforming the whole community into a rich learning environment.
To be sure, this all means increasing investment in public education. More teachers, social workers and community-based educators will be needed. Schools never fully recovered from the last recession, and teachers have been demanding fairer pay for years.
States and localities will have to take a hard look at budgets and prioritize spending on the most vulnerable and most deeply affected — our children with disabilities, our least-resourced families and our communities of color. Investments in them while planning for this coming school year will lead to lasting positive change that can reap important social and economic dividends — not only for them and their families but for the whole country.
This story about reopening schools in the fall was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Laura Bornfreund is director of Early & Elementary Education policy with the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third-grade learning experiences.
Lisa Guernsey is director of the Teaching, Learning, and Tech team with New America’s Education Policy Program. She focuses on new approaches to help students and families succeed in the Digital Age, generating new ideas for developing high-quality learning opportunities for underserved and historically disadvantaged populations.