“An educational catastrophe.” That’s how Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, described the effect of COVID-19 school closures on low-income K-12 students. The pandemic has sparked both an immediate emergency and a slow-motion disaster for disadvantaged students in the United States.
The abrupt transition to remote learning has exposed a stark digital divide that prevents students without computers or reliable internet access from logging on. Attendance is also hindered by other preexisting inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, such as uncomfortable, unaffordable or unsafe housing, homelessness, parental job insecurity, and caring for siblings when parents perform essential work.
Educational disruptions especially threaten African American and Latino students, as their families suffer disproportionate unemployment and COVID-19 complications and death. Nearly half of Latinos report job loss or a pay cut compared with about a third of all U.S. adults, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
At Esperanza Elementary School not far from my home in East Oakland, California, 80% of families have one or both parents out of work and in 60% of households, both parents lost jobs.
Economic pressure weighs on teens
Across the country, significant percentages of students aren’t attending online classes. Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the nation, reports 25% of students have not logged on at all. Chronic absenteeism raises the odds of dropping out in the future. In addition to barriers accessing educational materials and setbacks acquiring foundational skills, students have also lost anchoring connections with teachers and peers that harm their ability to stay in school.
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The coronavirus crisis is also putting economic pressure on jobless parents and on teenagers who may need to work or care for younger siblings. Doug Harris, a Tulane researcher who tracked students after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, predicts that “unfortunately, we’re going to see a spike in the high school dropout rate” and a decline in college enrollments.
What future do the most vulnerable U.S. students have to look forward to without our help? Will the pandemic force them to drop out and work at the grocery store or an Amazon warehouse to help their families make up for income loss? What will happen to the older siblings — many of them sisters — looking after younger siblings?
After my mom died, my caretaking responsibilities for my three younger sisters ranged from managing our household finances to attending parent-teacher conferences. I often reflect on how high school provided me with refuge. The daily encouragement I received from teachers who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself nurtured a flickering hope that I had a future.
My sisters dropped out after 9/11
For my twin sisters Joelle and Shauna, the Sept.11 attacks triggered school disruption that even today casts a long shadow economically, physically and mentally. The trauma compounded the loss of our mother to cancer five years earlier. At 15, they fled the attack on the World Trade Center as students at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, one of two schools closest to the towers, a block and a half away. The second plane engine landed on the school’s roof, and damage closed the building and suspended instruction for three weeks as the school relocated.
My sisters soon stopped attending, missing enough work that they felt powerless to catch up. Instead, they earned their GEDs and went to work at 16. Neither graduated from college. Besides the long-term effects of educational loss, physical concerns still haunt them. Joelle had pneumonia last year, and Shauna attributes her sensitive lungs (“that look like I smoke two packs a day”) to the dust cloud that enveloped them when the towers fell. She can’t afford health insurance and worries about the risk of complications from COVID-19: “I’m going to have to ride it out alone.”
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At minimum, the next stimulus package must provide billions more for educational funding, including summer school, extra instructional days next academic year, and additional tutoring and technology for poorer students. State budget deficits will force schools to do more with fewer resources, weakening their ability to support returning students if layoffs lead to larger class sizes and teacher burnout.
But we must invest in more than “making up” for lost classroom time. Securing students’ mental health is also necessary for meaningful learning. Reconnecting the most vulnerable families focused on survival will require patience, sensitivity and coordination with a sufficient number of mental health providers and school social workers.
“Lead with love, not with lessons,” implores Larry Ferlazzo, a columnist for Education Week and teacher at Luther Burbank High School.
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Hard-to-reach students need concerted outreach but not punitive contact from truancy officers or family court involvement. Taking a trauma-informed approach that recognizes the layers of trauma inflicted by the pandemic can bolster social and emotional support so that students not only return but also remain in school. Drafting student reentry plans that prioritize safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment can mitigate the potential for the educational system to retraumatize students who will have endured varying degrees of calamity.
Early exit from school has lifelong negative consequences for health and economic outcomes. It leads to accumulating inequality over a lifetime that diminishes well-being later in life. If we don’t invest now in safeguarding the futures of young people, we risk the collective loss of a generation derailed.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences atUniversity of California, San Francisco.