There perhaps has never been a more pivotal moment for the academic and social and emotional well-being of America's youth than this one. Like no other moment in my 25 years as an educator, American public education is in upheaval. COVID-19 has pushed a system with persistent opportunity gaps deeper into crisis.
No one should be surprised that disadvantaged students, for whom school is both a ladder and a safety net, have been impacted disproportionately. Students of color are least likely to log on for virtual learning and most likely to be related to people who have fallen ill. They also are confronting unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression.
If we are to emerge stronger from this crisis, one thing is clear – now is not a moment for fixed mindsets. To achieve breakthrough change, we need to be even more focused on partnering with diverse coalitions to help put every student on a path to upward economic and social mobility, meeting communities and families where they are and where they want to go.
The next five years present a remarkable opportunity to come together to move beyond a vision of school designed for an age that's already behind us and bring fresh ideas to what learning looks like. It's work the Walton Family Foundation has been supporting for decades. Yet far too many children still lack access to a learning environment that puts them on a path to a lifetime of opportunity.
As the foundation launched its 2025 strategy earlier this year, six community and education leaders joined a discussion with foundation grantees on the future of K-12 education. Their perspectives reinforced our commitment to build coalitions of the future that will close the opportunity and mobility gaps that students face.
Shalinee Sharma is CEO and co-founder of Zearn, an online learning platform used by over 6 million students. Over the past year, the platform has tracked billions of completed assignments, offering insights on which students fell behind during this crisis and how they can recover in the long term.
"On our app data, high-income students have experienced no learning loss, whatsoever, for all 30 instructional weeks of the pandemic, while low-income students have experienced learning loss every single week, except perhaps one," Sharma said.
Across states, the impact on learners from low-income communities varied. One solution? "Local context will be essential to consider and plan for in the recovery," she said.
More difficult to gauge is what The 74's national correspondent Beth Hawkins calls "the business of addressing the one-two punch of serving traumatized students who are also losing academic ground."
While 70% of school districts say they prioritize student well-being and social and emotional learning, Hawkins' research found only 7% are collecting data on what kids need and how they are doing.
Educators have been thrust into the position of making public health decisions, Hawkins said. Her reporting found the educators who have been most successful in this moment combine individual connection with one-on-one academic support, using the lessons of this year to connect to students, even if at a distance.
"I spoke to a teacher in New Orleans whose Black students were … connecting their newfound knowledge of the slave trader their school is named for to the historical roots of the inequities in their city. These moments are … made possible because those educators knew their students. They are not scared of kids' realities," she said.
Quite frankly, this has been one of the most traumatic years that any of us have seen in history.
Bishop T.D. Jakes presides over the Potter's House, a global humanitarian organization and 30,000-member church in Dallas. "Quite frankly, this has been one of the most traumatic years that any of us have seen in history," said Bishop Jakes. "Children are returning to school grieving, often raised by grandmothers who are missing, often being raised in multi-generational families in Black and Brown families, where they cannot do social distancing. They have faced trauma that no child should have to see."
As children return, Bishop Jakes said schools must emphasize "counseling, additional training for teachers to be able to detect those warning signs appropriately, and working together with faith leaders, community leaders and parents, [to] create a village whereby children are able to accomplish their goals and reach their dreams."
One such leader is Dr. Valerie Bridges, the "super proud" superintendent of Edgecombe Public Schools in North Carolina. The schools serve a diverse, rural community that navigates the pandemic with innovative solutions more often seen in urban settings.
"We have our fair share of struggles in our district, which include high unemployment and some academic concerns. But that's not what defines us," said Bridges. When the pandemic hit, the educators acted swiftly for their students, deploying centralized remote learning pods for students without access to the internet at home. "We wanted to provide a safe place for kids to work and engage, a safe place for them to get additional support and have access to reliable internet while their parents worked."
Community-led, community-demanded change … means a lot more focus at a level of politics that tends to get ignored in the national press.
Reihan Salam of the Manhattan Institute believes communities play an essential role in creating momentum for educational change. "When we're looking at the urgent, pressing, desperate need for more educational pluralism in the country, the obstacle hasn't been creative thinking from the policy community. The obstacle hasn't been a deep commitment on the part of parents and activists and funders. The obstacle has been our inability to build a durable coalition … that can actually achieve policy change at the legislative level."
Salam said that education is a state and local issue at a time when the political focus is overwhelmingly national. "Community-led, community-demanded change … means a lot more focus at a level of politics that tends to get ignored in the national press." To get there, he said parents across income levels and geography must join forces to advocate for what they believe will benefit all the students in their diverse community.
Stacey Childress, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, said there has never been a more urgent time to rethink how learning works. "Unleashing the genius that already exists in this country, in our communities to do just that is the way to approach the moment that we're in, and to imagine a new future, a new set of possibilities for our young people."
We couldn't agree more.