The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the greatest disruption to the U.S. education system in our country’s history. The closure of schools and other education spaces has forced millions of students to adapt to available learning opportunities and reduced social interaction – and has significantly limited access to support services that are delivered through schools.
Moreover, the crisis has exacerbated pre-existing disparities in learning and has had a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable students. Schools and teachers have had to work to minimize the impact of learning loss, yet many students in disadvantaged communities still don’t have access to the tools and learning supports needed to participate in instruction, including online and blended learning.
Reopening schools for in-person learning will be a big step in towards a more stable education landscape. However, newfound challenges will extend beyond promoting behaviors that reduce the spread of the virus and maintain healthy environments. It won’t be enough for schools to simply have a plan for how to act when there has been a COVID-19 exposure.
School systems will need comprehensive strategies designed to meet the needs of students from an academic and social-emotional perspective. Combatting learning loss will be a primary challenge. However, schools will also need to expand social-emotional and behavioral supports as the mental health needs of students is expected to be at an all-time high. It’s possible that compensatory services will need to be provided, and that additional supports will be required to re-engage disconnected students.
School District Strategies For Reopening Schools
Districts will need to plan and implement well-defined strategies for reopening schools; strategies that can be revised and adapted to changing conditions. Those strategies are likely to include a mix of best-practices and recent innovations that have been developed over the course of the past year, many through trial and error.
In the remainder of this article, we’ll discuss the key areas experiencing the largest impacts on our school systems and students. We’ll share best practices for school systems looking to adapt, make adjustments, and innovate their education strategies in the wake of newfound challenges.
The Largest Reopening Impacts on School Systems & Students:
- Learning Loss (Closing Wide Gaps)
- Integration of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
- Integration of Behavioral and Mental Health Supports
- Compensatory Education Services
- Re-engaging Disconnected Students
Learning Loss (Closing Wide Gaps)
According to a December 2020 report by McKinsey & Company, “the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics—with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year.” 1
Students of color and students from lower socio-economic groups are likely to experience greater-than-average learning loss due to technology accessibility and availability. As noted by the McKinsey study, “the pandemic has forced the most vulnerable students into the least desirable learning situations with inadequate tools and support systems to navigate them.” If these opportunity gaps are not addressed, it will almost inevitably result in even wider achievement gaps.
It’s imperative that school systems minimize the impact of learning loss and address the need to rebuild students’ skills, as learning losses tend to compound over time. Immediate priorities include preventing further learning loss by bringing students back to in-person school and improving remote education offerings. School systems are also implementing measures designed to help students catch up.
Best Practices for Addressing Learning Loss Include:
- Focusing on content or skills that are prerequisites to future learning. For example, students will struggle with fractions if they have not learned the mathematics skills/lessons leading up to the introduction of fractions.
- Creating a school schedule that includes longer classes and / or blocks of learning time where teachers can address content that is a prerequisite for moving to the next level.
- Offering intensive tutoring services.
- Creating short-term and/or accelerated catch-up courses that teach missed content, to help ensure that students have mastered prior-year content.
- Building in time for students to seek extra help.
Integration of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)
Now, more than a year into the global pandemic, it’s clear that the effects of the pandemic aren’t limited to learning loss and other academic issues. The pandemic environment has weakened students’ social support systems, which in turn has compromised their ability to adapt to and recover from disruption and trauma.
A representative survey of 6,000 educators conducted by the Professional Association of Georgia Educators indicates that “more than 75 percent of those surveyed reported higher social-emotional needs among their students, including increased depression, anxiety and social isolation.”2 Schools and communities are also reporting increases in online bullying and abuse3 and in sickness, loss and grief associated with friends, relatives, and family members becoming ill and dying from COVID-19.
“School closings have [also] been associated with the rise in adolescent suicides due to feelings of isolation and hopelessness,” notes a new research publication that discusses evidence-based practices for assessing the social and emotional well-being of students.4 The same research reminds us that disruptions to student mental and emotional health, not to mention disruptions to education environments and social systems of support, call for a renewed focus on social and emotional wellbeing.
Suggested SEL strategies include:
- Developing a comprehensive system for monitoring student well-being.
- Utilizing concise student surveys to supplement screening and monitoring.
Additional Strategies for Helping Students:
- Consider offering small group or one-on-one counseling sessions.
- Assign an in-house point person to work with outside partners and resources like local mental health agencies and universities; partners who can help bolster your mental health services for little to no cost. In many areas, the services provided by community-based mental health counselors, substance abuse specialists, therapists, and social workers can be funded by donations, government, or insurance, offsetting much of the cost.
- Try to maximize the talent, time, and expertise of your staff by planning as a team and minimizing the time in which meetings and paperwork take from working with students.
- When it comes to behavioral issues, be proactive rather than reactive. Consider utilizing experts who are trained to identify and reduce behavioral triggers, thereby working to prevent problems before they occur.
- Assess results and get feedback directly from students. For example, if you add advisory periods to help students build relationships with teachers, ask them if those periods are increasing the connection they feel with their instructors.
The bottom line is that incorporating SEL practices in everyday schooling is going to increasingly become an expectation on the part of students and families, not just a supplemental school service offering.
Greater integration of SEL can also be invaluable to teachers, who have reported dramatically increased workloads in the wake of the pandemic.
– The need to spend more time communicating with parents.
– The need to manage teaching both in-person and virtually.
– Expanded responsibility in terms of teaching at grade level while also helping students make up for learning loss.
Teachers are spending so much time and energy focusing on the academic needs of their students that they may not be able to adequately support their students’ mental health needs. The presence of dedicated mental health professionals in the education environment is more important than ever before.
Integration of Behavioral and Mental Health Supports
While it’s normal for students to experience a certain amount of anxiety about returning to school, this year obviously has produced additional anxiety-inducing factors for students. In the age of COVID-19, students everywhere are dealing with a myriad of pandemic-related stressors, compounded by adjusting to drastically altered school routines while also facing greater anxiety and uncertainty about the future.
Surveys continue to indicate that the pandemic has resulted in extremely high levels of stress and mental health morbidity in students, including higher prevalence of depression, fear, anxiety, and other serious mental health conditions.
The problem begins with the disruption of the traditional school day. According to a survey conducted by Active Minds, a nonprofit advocacy group supporting mental health education for students, 74 percent of students say they have found it challenging to maintain a routine because of COVID-19.5 Eight in ten students are struggling to focus on school or work and avoiding distractions.6
Moreover, because of schools closures and community events cancellations, students can feel isolated and disconnected. In a Gallup poll of parents with school-age children, 45 percent of parents said being separated from classmates and teachers has been a major challenge for their children.7
In a California state-wide student assessment survey affiliated with American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, more than half of respondents reported needing mental health support. That includes the 22 percent who said they were receiving support before school closures, but now have little to no access to services. 8
The challenge is to implement best practices to expand and improve social, emotional, and behavioral supports for students without further burdening current staff. This may include developing systematic ways for teachers to build and maintain interpersonal relationships with students via small group lunches and advisory groups, for example.
Providing additional supports for classroom teachers and staff or hiring additional professionals who are skilled in behavior management may be necessary. Such professionals can help identify and manage behavioral triggers and reduce undesirable behaviors.
Compensatory Education Services
Another area where additional supports and resources may be necessary is compensatory services; a fast-evolving, resource-intensive component of the education landscape.
In accordance with FAPE, schools can and must provide education to all students, including Special Education students who have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Schools also must ensure, to the greatest extent possible, students are provided with the appropriate SPED and related services as identified on their IEP.
Even under normal circumstances, many districts are significantly challenged by the resources and efforts required to remain in IEP compliance for all of their student population with IEP documentation. Furthermore, Special Education students and students with disabilities typically need customized or individualized approaches to address challenges caused by COVID-19. Some services that were once provided in-person may now need to be delivered through alternative approaches. This requires making an individualized determination that includes input from parents.
One of the most common challenges facing SPED students in the pandemic environment is connectivity. Those challenges go further than having access to the basic technology needed to facilitate a video call. Many students with disabilities may have developed additional social, emotional, mental health, or academic needs during the pandemic, possibly necessitating additional supports. In some students’ cases, complex health and safety needs may call for development of a “contingency learning plan” designed to navigate the uncertainties related to COVID-19.
To meet these increased support needs, many school systems are calling on outside providers to help with all aspects of IEP review and compliance, along with other compensatory services.
Re-engaging Disconnected Students
Finally, one of the most troubling trends we’ve seen over the course of the past year is a dramatic rise in the number of disconnected students, which has reversed ten years of progress in a matter of months. In a recent national attendance and public records data research initiative, Bellwether Education Partners published their findings estimating that between 10% and 25% of students in many marginalized groups are likely to have had minimal or no educational access since schools shut down in March 9. This range equates to 1-3 million U.S. students who have become disengaged and disconnected from school, since the beginning of the pandemic.
As noted in “A Decade Undone,” a study issued by Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council, the youth disconnection rate (the share of young people in the United States who are not working nor in school) dropped for eight years in a row, from a recession-fueled high of 14.7 percent in 2010 to 11.2 percent in 2018.9 In contrast, in the past year, we’ve seen an increase in the unemployment rate and reductions in school enrollment, especially among minorities and students who live in disadvantaged communities.
According to Measure of America data:
- Almost one-third of disconnected young people live in poverty and are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as connected young people.
- 16.9 percent of disconnected youth have a disability, as compared to 5.1 percent of connected youth.
- Disconnected young women are more than four times as likely to be mothers as their connected counterparts; 25.2 percent versus six percent.
- Disconnected youth are more than 20 times more likely to be institutionalized as their connected peers.
- Disconnected youth are nine times as likely to have dropped out of high school. One in four young people who are disconnected didn’t earn a high school diploma.
Experiencing a period of disconnection as a young person can have a profound effect on earnings, employment opportunities, and health later in life. That’s because a young person’s formative years are critical to developing the capabilities required to realize a full, flourishing adulthood. Such capabilities include:
– Knowledge and credentials
– Social skills and social networks
– An understanding of one’s own strengths and preferences
– The ability to handle stressful events and regulate one’s emotions
– The ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships.
It may seem daunting to take on the additional effort and resource of re-engaging disconnected students, but districts have the power to make decisions which prioritize initiatives focused on student re-engagement. Options for intervention services and re-engagement supports are available. By choosing to dedicate effort and resource to re-engaging disconnected and marginalized students, America’s future generations can benefit significantly.
ChanceLight Education Can Help
ChanceLight Education has more than 45 years of experience working in partnership with school systems, during which time we have developed and refined alternative and special education solutions to help disconnected and vulnerable students. With decades of experience adapting to the needs of individual student populations, we are uniquely well-suited to design and implement programs that meet the educational, behavioral, and emotional needs of students in 2021 and beyond.
ChanceLight can work with you to create customized programs that fit the unique needs of your student population, thereby maximizing academic, behavioral, and social success. We can also provide centralized behavioral teams, including teachers, behavioral specialists, and mental health therapists; that can provide support across several classrooms or schools.
Over the past year, we have addressed the challenges presented by COVID-19 in our schools and programs; quickly and effectively adapting our programs and technology for success, even amidst extreme disruption. Using proven methods, highly-trained staff, and evidence-based strategies, we can help mitigate the effects being felt by disconnected students and reverse the accumulated damage of the past year. ChanceLight can help you execute flexible, innovative strategies designed to address your student population’s specific needs.
1 COVID-19 and Learning Loss—Disparities Grow and Students Need Help, December 8, 2020.
2 Voices from Georgia Schools: Georgia Educators on Supporting Public Education During and After the COVID-19 Pandemic, Professional Association of Georgia Educators, 2021.
3 Calls to Domestic Violence Centers Spike During SIP, by Todd Guild, The Pararonian, April 17, 2020.
4 Evidence-Based Practices for Assessing Students’ Social and Emotional Well-Being, by Heather J. Hough, Joe Witte, Caroline Wang and Dave Calhoun, February 2021.
5 The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Mental Health, Active Minds Student Survey: https://www.activeminds.org/studentsurvey.
7 How Parents Say COVID-19 Harming Child’s Mental Health, by Valerie J. Calderon, https://news.gallup.com/poll/312605/parents-say-covid-harming-child-mental-health.aspx.
8 Summary of Student Mental Health Survey Results, Youth Liberty Squad, May 2020, https://www.schoolcounselor-ca.org/Files/Student%20Wellness%20Survey%20Summary%205-08-20.pdf.
9 A Decade Undone: Youth Disconnection in the Age of Coronavirus, by Kristen Lewis, Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council, 2020.
10 Missing in the Margins: Estimating the Scale of the COVID-19 Attendance Crisis, October 2020, https://bellwethereducation.org/publication/missing-margins-estimating-scale-covid-19-attendance-crisis