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With students, teachers and parents well into the fourth school year impacted by the pandemic, we must acknowledge the unequal burdens poor children and children of color have suffered. Schools must now use remaining American Rescue Plan funds to mitigate those burdens.

In response to so-called learning loss, some researchers and journalists have been content to point fingers at the remote schooling that many families, particularly families of color, preferred until their school-aged children were eligible for vaccinations.

That narrative, however, is a distorted and incomplete story that leads to distorted and incomplete interventions.  

Before appropriately directing American Rescue Plan funds, we must acknowledge that not only have over 200,000 children in the United States lost at least one caregiver to Covid, but also that most of these children come from historically marginalized communities in which we have underinvested. As we face yet another potential surge in Covid cases and deaths — more than three times that which we would expect to see in a typical influenza season — that number is almost sure to grow. 

Every other racial group of children experienced larger proportions of caregiver deaths than white children did, and children classified in any racial group other than “non-Hispanic white” have also been more likely to die from Covid.

We cannot help kids recover from the continuing pandemic and its effects if we do not have a frank conversation about what continues to happen to them.

Armed with this understanding, schools must use their ARP funds to hire and train grief counselors, particularly in communities hit hard by Covid deaths, and continue to upgrade ventilation systems that will make school buildings safer. We cannot help kids recover from the continuing pandemic and its effects if we do not have a frank conversation about what continues to happen to them, and if we do not help the most impacted communities themselves set the terms of recovery.

Much of the focus on pandemic recovery in schools throughout the United States has been on recruiting tutors to help students make up for lost learning time, and there is some evidence that such tutoring can work under certain circumstances. Some schools have turned toward afterschool tutoring in particular, although research indicates that approach has weak results.  No type of tutoring, however, will help students cope with the tremendous personal losses they have experienced during the pandemic.

There is also a role for the federal government to play beyond ARP fund distribution. Even as the federal appetite for confronting the effects of the pandemic wanes, the U.S. Department of Education has a clear role to play in supporting schools’ efforts to address students’ losses. The DOE must work with states not only to quantify student learning gaps and address specific ones, but also to help schools identify kids who have suffered personal losses and financial precarity — and then help schools provide expanded services and supports.

Those supports should include making the free lunch program permanent, providing meaningful grief counseling and creating opportunities for families to receive material help through the schools, such as access to food and the internet.

Ultimately, these supports must be determined by the communities that most need them and that continue to be most affected by a pandemic that has not ended. Acknowledging that the pandemic continues to impact us may be politically inconvenient for both major political parties, but it would be far more inconvenient and cruel to continue expecting business as usual from children who are suffering.

Related: Massive learning setbacks show Covid’s sweeping toll on kids

Ignoring a problem rarely makes it go away, and, in this instance, the problem of how to support children is one of the most important ones we will face in this country for years to come. 

A virus that kills three times as many people a year as the flu will continue to wreak havoc throughout society, and children will continue to lose caregivers.

We owe it to them to address the problems in front of us –– even when admitting there even are problems feels like the hardest thing of all.

Margaret Thornton is a visiting assistant professor at Old Dominion University’s Darden College of Education. Her research interests include equity-focused school leadership development, school leadership for detracking and critical race theory.

This story about Covid and children was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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