Adjusting to new social and educational realities
Editorial Contribution
By | Shant’a Johnson & Ali Larson

It would be impossible to capture the impact of Covid-19 on our children’s education within the confines of one article. The effects have been felt far and wide, perhaps more deeply than anyone could have anticipated. The sentiments of the students and parents captured in Allan’s writing for this month’s issue capture widely shared experiences while also only scratching the surface.

Many of us, both educators and parents alike, have seen a general decline in the rigor and challenge students deserve due to the difficulty of remote learning, ever-changing environments and expectations, and the like. In addition, we know that students lost nearly three months of learning at a critical moment of the school year this Spring, during the unsteady shifts to remote learning for unknown lengths of time. Teachers now have to make up for lost time while also teaching to the standards of their own grades, all while dealing with the frustrations and limitations of remote platforms. It is undeniable that we are seeing learning loss across the board.

The impact on our families is direct and far-reaching. It cannot be overstated what kind of toll this pandemic has had, and will have, on both the education and mental health of our students and their caregivers. Now seen under the bright spotlight of a crisis, disparities in access, resources, childcare, and stability of employment and/or housing are adding to the already inequitable opportunity gaps present in our schools. This growing divide itself also contributes to mental health decline in both caregivers and educators as we do everything in our power to make sure all students are progressing and growing equitably in unconducive settings. These growing gaps are a crisis in themselves and yet our families are also dealing with myriad issues requiring their immediate time, attention, and energy. The additional tolls being taken by financial strains, the balancing of work and remote learning, childcare issues, and the ever-present fear of Covid-19 are stretching our families – and schools – to their limits.

Schools have often been a community hub that provides so much more than academic instruction. At their best, schools serve as a clearing house of sorts, helping connect families with resources and supports they may not find or receive elsewhere. A school community (both staff and the greater community at-large) often helps to meet the needs of families in order to set their child(ren) up for success.

The shift to remote learning has removed the opportunity for many families to be served in valuable and critical ways. It is much more difficult to check-in with families or learn of urgent needs when they aren’t coming to school regularly or at all. The ability to build relationships has been negatively impacted, affecting so much more than just academics.

The trust required of parents towards their schools is extremely difficult to build across computer screens. New families that don’t know the staff are less inclined to ask for support. Other families may not know who to contact or may not have time/energy to reach out. For me (Ali), this has been one of the biggest shifts I’ve seen and felt in the past six months: the decreased ability of a school to meet the needs of its families and students. Whether it be support with meals, mental health, transportation, or housing assistance, schools have a much more difficult time identifying needs and providing support. This is a critical setback in the education of our students. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs suggests, students will have a more difficult time learning if their basic needs aren’t met. This has always been the case, and it has been exacerbated in our current social and educational context as families search for new ways to be stable. And if we’re having a more difficult time assessing/identifying these needs due to the constraints placed on our schools and staff (remote communication, decreased time together, extra demanding workloads, ever-shifting regulations, etc.), we know many needs are going unmet. All of this leads to increasing the opportunity gap and placing even heavier burdens on schools and families long term.

The impact that COVID and remote learning has had on families intersects with various systemic sectors. I, (Shant’a) acknowledge the privilege of being able to work from home and support my middle school student through their remote learning time, and how being able to keep steady employment secures our housing situation, which is a basic need and right. Every family, every child should have stable housing, without question. I also understand that this is a cycle for my own child, in that home stability aids in their consistent engagement during already unpredictable times. Having worked in the past supporting students experiencing homelessness through their educational journey, and now working in the public housing sector, I am keenly aware of the strain remote learning is placing upon working families. For instance, a single mother working in the culinary industry has a first grade student with speech learning needs. The mother has no choice but to stay home due to not having any other caregiver accessible to support and care for her child. Having to make the choice of staying home to support and care for her child puts their housing and other basic needs at risk. These are decisions many families are having to make.

As well, the requirements to access remote learning (i.e. consistent wi-fi connection, appropriate technology equipment), creates even more of a barrier to accessing educational experiences virtually, and greatly emphasizes the connection of housing stability toand a student’s educational success.

When we think of the many tools, and structures that a school puts into place to support the focus and engagement of a student, the idea of every student’s home replicating this environment can seem daunting.

The inter-sectoral impact that remote learning can have upon housing, and employment is pushing other public and private entities to extend their already limited resources to create safety nets for student success. Public Housing Authorities across the nation, before the pandemic, took to addressing the educational needs of students by creating partnerships with tutoring and other educational programs. Now these partnerships have shifted from afterschool programming to offering on-site support during school hours that also includes meals for students who may not have access to food during school hours at home.

Remote learning, with all of its challenges, is also pushing society to change educational supports, practices and structure in a way that has not been done in the more than 100 years of public schooling. To face these challenges and honestly address them head- on can address the inequities that already were present in the system of public schooling in its current form. It could be that the true solution is right in front of us, as clear as the challenges are now.

Shant’a Johnson
Editorial Board Member

Mother of DPS middle schooler. Raised in APS. Former DPS educator for seven years. Former ECE Educator for over 15 years. Survivor and thriver over homelessness with a Masters of Educational Administrative Leadership. Director of Family and Community Vitality for Adams County Housing

Ali Larson
Editorial Board Member

Ali Larson currently serves as a Family
and Community Liaison in Denver
Public Schools. She has a background
in government, politics, and education with a passion for
community activism. She served on the Washington, DC
staff of a US Senator before returning to Denver to work for a philanthropic organization whose interests included issues from early childhood education to recovery from substance abuse.