During my years as a public school teacher, I observed firsthand the policies and practices that intentionally deny students the social safety net required to thrive: living in food deserts, health issues due to lack of insurance, and the experience of being over-policed and under-protected.
On my worst days I’d think: Just burn it all down.
But of course I didn’t want that. I wanted us to make it better.
The existing structures of our American educational system are currently buckling under the weight of COVID-19. Institutions across the country are forced to consider their value to the communities they serve and find innovative ways to meet students’ basic needs, deepen relationships with families, and teach to anything but a test.
I hope these districts maintain the practices, policies, and mindsets they are using in this crisis. I hope they recognize that many of our students were already in crisis.
In response to COVID-19, many of the regulations related to food distribution for students have been waived, providing school districts with the flexibility to meet students’ basic needs while maintaining social distancing practices. In my home city of Dallas, the district distributed seven days worth of food to students—nearly 500,000 meals.
Before COVID-19, many students would go hungry on weekends and school holidays. Nearly 11 million children in the United States live in food insecure homes. On the other side of this crisis, school districts must continue to ensure students and their families eat healthy foods regularly.
Access to technology is an incredible priority during this time of school closures. Morning meetings happen on Zoom, student assignments are distributed via Google Classroom, and P.E. is led by teachers via YouTube. Without a reliable device and access to broadband internet, students and guardians are left to fend for themselves. In Los Angeles, 77 million dollars of bond funds ensure each student in the district has a laptop. A laptop without internet is essentially a typewriter, so school districts are working to provide access via Wi-Fi buses in Arizona or purchasing hotspots in New Orleans.
Before COVID-19, 14% of children between 6-17 lived in homes without access to the internet. In our ever evolving world, students need regular access to the internet to complete assignments, connect to their peers, and explore their interests. On the other side of this crisis, school districts must continue to close the digital divide.
To determine basic needs such as food and technology, some school districts are conducting community needs surveys, which provide more accurate indicators of how to help than our assumptions.
Families are more likely to share those needs if they have a trusting relationship with teachers and school leaders.
Before my first official day as Ms. Godina, I spent a semester as a student teacher in Northeast Georgia followed by six weeks as a teaching fellow in Houston. The major difference between those experiences was not the length of the appointment, but the quality of relationships. On the first day of my time in Houston, my co-teachers and I called all our students’ parents. With those phone calls I learned about parent’s goals and their capacity to support. By calling on the first day, I let parents know they could expect to hear from me and that we were on the same team.
During my last week in Houston, I was invited to my students’ birthday parties.
During our current public health crisis, teachers and school leaders are calling and texting families, hoping to develop new relationships or deepen existing ones. In Dallas, teachers have contacted 98.8 percent of students, opening lines of communication to create a two-way street. Part of the impetus for these calls is ensuring that students understand the tools and expectations related to remote learning—for many a completely new frontier—but it also builds trust and connection, giving teachers and school leaders the opportunity to learn a family’s individual needs and assets as well as sharing the school’s needs and assets.
In the midst of a global pandemic when most states have cancelled standardized tests, teachers and districts are reconsidering the purpose of learning, as well as how we assess that learning. In Dallas, the superintendent has insisted that students and teachers will be “held harmless” as a result of COVID-19. Other school districts have had a similar idea: in Fort-Worth students will be graded on a pass/fail basis; in Dallas, teacher evaluation ratings will roll over from the previous year.
But what if that crisis is not a global pandemic, but living in a country that intentionally withholds resources from young people and their families?
Some days it feels like our country is on fire. But then I see how teachers stand out as providers, connectors, and understanding partners. I hope our schools emerge from this particular crisis with a newfound attachment to the policies, practices, and mindsets that they are using today.
We can make it better.
We’ve already begun.
How to help:
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