Every year, we send our children off to their first days of school with hopes and dreams that they will enjoy the year, that they will learn a lot, and that they will find success. There are also always concerns—Will they fit in? Will they find the lessons too challenging? Will they like their teachers?—but this year, concerns loom large for many families. In addition to the regular first week jitters, families across the country are worried about their children’s safety.
Protection from COVID-19: We must ensure all students and families benefit from robust, multi-layered COVID-19 mitigation strategies that have been proven to reduce risk.
As the delta variant surges and many states contend with low vaccination rates, despite widespread availability and evidence of effectiveness, families are once again worrying that sending their children into school buildings means putting their health at risk. The FDA has not yet approved the COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12 years old, which means all elementary and some middle school-aged children are without that key protection. Vaccination rates among 12-15 year olds, for whom the vaccines are approved, remain the lowest out of any age group. Masks are proven to protect against the spread of the virus, and many families understandably feel that this should be one of many steps taken to ensure the safest learning environment possible. However, mask mandates in schools have become a point of great contention at school board meetings across the country. Governors and local officials in many states have also attempted to ban mask mandates. The U.S. Department of Education announced this week that it would investigate whether prohibiting mask mandates violates the civil rights of students, especially those living with disabilities, by putting them at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19.
Other conditions that will impact students’ health will likewise vary by district and by school—and as is the case with so many other aspects of our public school system, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and students living in poverty are most likely to attend schools without the resources for proper safety precautions. Poor ventilation is one such condition prevalent in especially the oldest school buildings throughout the country. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in June that more than 41 percent of school districts need to update or replace their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems in at least half of their buildings in order to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Deplorable school infrastructure has long been considered by advocates and families as an infringement on the rights of children to receive a free and appropriate education, and improper ventilation during a pandemic is yet another way that inequitable distribution of resources is going to put our country’s most marginalized children at increased risk.
Mental Health Supports: We must ensure student’s mental health and well-being are prioritized and supported, especially given the heightened hardships and stresses communities have experienced recently.
As of early 2021, an estimated 40,000 children had already lost a parent due to COVID-19, with Black children being disproportionately harmed by this horrific surge in parental death. Along with this immense loss and grief, the pandemic has caused changes in routines, breaks in continuity of learning, missed doctor’s visits, loss of economic and housing security, and missed significant life events that are likely to weigh on our children long after the pandemic ends. The effects of these health and economic crises are also happening against a backdrop of continuous police violence that targets and traumatizes Black children and families in communities across the country.
We’re already seeing the impacts of these crises on children’s mental health. A recent CDC study found that between April 2020 and October 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health-related emergency room visits has increased and remained elevated compared to the same time period in 2019—this is part of a children’s mental health crisis that the last year has revealed and exacerbated.
As students begin to return, schools must serve as a place of support, acknowledging the harms students have experienced and prioritizing students’ well-being. The American Rescue Plan allocated funding for schools through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund, including $122 billion for school reopening, which schools can use to prioritize students’ mental health by:
- Prioritizing youth and family engagement when developing reopening plans and planning school mental health programs and supports;
- Expanding school-based behavioral health workforce and prioritizing equity in hiring;
- Explicitly integrating social-emotional learning with culturally responsive practices; and
- Investing in infrastructure projects such as telehealth technology and training, and technical support.
Safe and Supportive School Climate: We must ensure our students aren’t returning to a norm of criminalization and harm.
Students need safe, healthy, and inclusive learning environments. Despite evidence that school policing and harsh, exclusionary discipline practices make schools less safe, target Black students and students with disabilities, and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline along with having other long-term negative impacts, thousands of students are still subjected to over-policing and dangerous discipline methods like corporal punishment or restraint.
As students bring even more stress and trauma with them to their classrooms this year, schools must prioritize care and support, rather than exclusionary and harmful school discipline in response to normal child-like behavior. Learn more about efforts to remove police from schools in cities and states across the country here and join students across the country in calling on Congress to do their part to remove police from schools here.
Opportunities to Finish Learning: We must ensure that all children have enriching, extended learning opportunities that will allow them to address learning unfinished during two interrupted school years.
At best, children have experienced two turbulent school years during which optimal learning has been difficult. At worst, they received no instruction for potentially months at a time or have spent a school year and a half without the resources or opportunities to engage fully in modified learning. Children across the country have valuable learning that remains unfinished as we enter the 2021-2022 school year, and the very least we can do is ensure they have enriching and supportive opportunities to focus on learning.
The CARES Act and American Rescue Plan each provided billions of dollars in funding for extended learning, including funding specifically designated for local education agencies to invest in learning recovery strategies that include after-school and summer programs. Proven programs like our own CDF Freedom Schools® program are more necessary than ever this year, as they meet students and families where they are and allow them the space to make invaluable learning gains. The CDF Freedom Schools program was proud to serve children, predominantly non-white children and children living in poverty, in 72 cities across the country this summer. “Inside” our CDF Freedom Schools classrooms, whether they were virtual or in person, children received culturally responsive literacy instruction, social and emotional learning, and whole-family support. With our history of helping children avoid the summer learning loss that is especially common among children living in low-income communities, the CDF Freedom Schools program is well-suited to helping children achieve and grow when their regular “school day” is not enough. School districts must make use of COVID-19 relief funding to ensure these types of extended learning opportunities are available to all children and families.
Certainty and Reassurance About Their Futures: We must ensure that immigrant children feel safe, secure, and able to earn an education.
Hundreds of thousands of students bear the enormous burden and persistent fear over whether they can continue their education and stay together with their families here in the U.S. A new report from FWD.us estimates that approximately 600,000 K-12 students in this country are undcoumented students, the overwhelming majority of which are either younger than 15 and/or arrived in the U.S. after 2007, two factors which make them unable to request Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) protections. These children and youth face stressors that affect both their mental health and educational success.
Public school districts may not deny access to education to any child based on immigration status, but students need more than access to an education; they need long-term solutions—including a pathway to citizenship.
This blog was co-authored by Teri Hatch, Sierra Campbell, and Mina Dixon Davis.