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To help students readjust to life after the pandemic, schools should use their Covid-relief funding windfall to imbue mental health, equity and relationships into every aspect of the school day, according to a sweeping new report released Thursday.
“This is the biggest infusion of money into schools that many of us will see in our lifetimes. We’re hoping educators take advantage of this moment to not go back to the way we were,” said Christopher J. Nellum, interim executive director of the Education Trust-West, an Oakland nonprofit that advocates for equity in schools and one of more than a dozen groups that contributed to the report. “We should take a moment to explore what we can do that’s exciting and innovative.”
The report, “Reimagine and Rebuild: Restarting school with equity at the center,” was co-published by Policy Analysis for California Education, Education Trust-West, Californians for Justice and an array of other groups, including the California PTA, the California Teachers Association, Association for California School Administrators and numerous social justice and youth advocacy groups.
California schools will receive more than $35.7 billion in state and federal pandemic funding over the next few months, which they can use to can pay for services like mental health counseling and tutoring for students. Although most of the funding is not permanent, schools can invest the money in some one-time ventures that could have lasting impacts, such as partnerships with mental health and community groups, said Heather Hough, executive director of PACE.
The report was based on interviews with teachers, administrators and researchers, as well as students of all backgrounds.
“In education, we talk a lot about students, but rarely do we talk with them. The brief was developed by working with Black, brown, Asian Pacific Islander and low-income students to lay out their blueprint for an education system that is built to support every student to thrive,” said Taryn Ishida, executive director of Californians for Justice, which advocates for young people of color.
The report focuses on summer and the first six weeks of school but also calls for longer-term improvements in K-12 education.
“We acknowledge that people are exhausted. We can’t do everything we need to do right away,” Hough said. “But we also know that schools have not met the needs of a large group of students for a long time, and we need to start looking at long-term changes.”
Noting that the pandemic disproportionately affected low-income students and students of color, the report urges schools to give extra help to those students — both academically and to meet their social and emotional needs.
The report also says that schools should focus on locating and re-engaging the estimated 130,000 students statewide who stopped attending school when classes shifted online and the thousands more who were chronically absent or otherwise disengaged.
The report suggests dozens of ideas, including:
- Home visits for teachers to meet families, outdoor activities, games and art projects, small group discussions and other activities to help students and teachers get to know each other;
- Regular mental health screenings and referrals to counselors for students who need extra support;
- Restorative practices — such as group discussions about student behavior — instead of traditional discipline. Schools should also eliminate police and security;
- A review of each student’s academic and attendance record during the pandemic to see what specific help they need to catch up. An “individual learning plan” could include goals and progress benchmarks for every student;
- Tutoring for every student who needs it;
- Partnerships with community groups such as the Boys and Girls Club to provide fun activities over the summer and after school so that students can relax, reconnect with their friends and regain their social and communications skills;
- Curriculum “that allows students of all racial, ethnic and linguistic backgrounds to feel safe, acknowledged and respected.” In addition, teachers should undergo training on how bias and privilege affects the classroom;
- New technology, books, art supplies, play equipment and other supplies to improve learning opportunities;
- Close attention to teachers’ mental well-being. That includes ample time for planning, breaks throughout the day and opportunities to express their own needs;
- Partnerships with mental health organizations to provide extra assistance for students who need it;
- Streamlined curriculum. If teachers don’t have time to cover all the content in a lesson, they should prioritize the main points instead of overwhelming students with tests and assignments.
Student well-being should be an urgent priority for every school reopening for in-person learning, Hough said.
“What we don’t want to see is kids coming back to school and being hammered with instructional content,” Hough said. “Kids cannot learn unless they have opportunities to connect with one another and feel seen and acknowledged as a whole person.”
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