One of the more sobering effects of COVID-19 is that it has vividly exposed the daily consequences of pervasive inequities in American society.
Whether it’s the lack of affordable health care, food deserts, inadequate internet and technology access or jobs with no sick leave, our social safety net turns out to be more holes than net. Disadvantaged children (and their families), the most vulnerable of those among us, regularly fall through that net. These inequities were a fact of life for many in this country, every day, prior to this pandemic, but now the plight of these children has made it the front page as the media covers the widespread side effects of measures like school closures.
In the absence of schools, which over the years have increasingly been charged with not only achieving world class standards for all students but also being the solution to a full range of society’s ills, we have a vacuum. Even under the best of circumstances, schools had limited capacity to meet the challenges of inequality, health care, teen pregnancy, violence, mental illness, nutritional deficits, and so on. Now, hobbled by closures, schools have even less ability to meet the many, complex needs of children.
This vacuum presents an opportunity for civic action, for communities to come together in the interests of children’s well-being, development, and education.
For years, leaders in a number of U.S. cities have been forming Children’s Cabinets, collaborative action bodies composed of agencies inside and outside of government, with responsibilities and interests in seeing children thrive in school and in life. These Cabinets typically operate in the following way:
- Map out an ideal cradle-to-career pipeline designed to assure the success of their young people.
- Conduct a gap analysis: What’s missing? Where do services, supports, and opportunities fall short in their communities?
- Identify available and potential assets to fill those gaps.
- Select and implement strategies for closing the gaps, points of entry for building a stronger children’s system like more access to high-quality early childhood education or more access to mental health counseling.
We at Harvard’s Education Redesign Lab have been running a network of such cabinets over the past four years called the By All Means Initiative. Other colleagues in the field, including StriveTogether, Communities in Schools, and the community school movement generally have been doing this kind of work for decades. We believe that Children’s Cabinets are not only a huge asset for communities in addressing the current emergency plaguing the world, but that they present a viable, permanent model for structuring community action in service of equitable outcomes for all children.
In addition to the work we have done with the By All Means communities, we have also developed a partnership with The Forum for Youth Investment and The Children's Funding Project — the Local Children's Cabinet Network — that works to improve systems-level governance through cross-sector collaboration.
These Children’s Cabinets are systematically changing the fragmented ways that state and local governments attempt to serve children and families. They are bringing efficiency and effectiveness to their efforts.
For example, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board is a policy-focused partnership between the schools, city and county governments, and the department of parks and recreation. The board is developing a Youth Master Plan to unite stakeholders and policymakers around common goals, creating a system of afterschool opportunities, and improving early childhood education, among others. It currently serves as a clearinghouse for information on COVID-19.
The Foundation for Tacoma Students, the backbone of the Graduate Tacoma community-wide movement, coordinates services and matches partner organizations with providers to alleviate resource shortages.
The Denver Children's Cabinet brings together city agencies to coordinate policy, spending, and services for children. The Cabinet uses neighborhood-based data analysis and a fiscal map of spending on youth to align resources and ensure programs are offered where most needed.
The Somerville Children’s Cabinet uses cross-sector relationships to respond quickly and cohesively to any issue. In the current crisis, the Cabinet is sharing multilingual information on food, health, and educational resources.
Finally, the cabinets in Oakland and Stockton, California are helping ensure that no child goes hungry during the current school closures by distributing meals to students and setting up a drive-thru meal pick-up for children under 18, respectively.
Children’s Cabinets are a viable, proven mechanism not only for crisis management but for the long-term redesign of the systems of child and family support and opportunity that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed as deeply flawed and unfair. We urge local, state, and federal leaders to embrace this concept, construct and finance Children’s Cabinets and, in so doing, create not only a potent immediate response to children’s needs but a promising tool for communities to advance the well-being of their families and children.
We can no longer rely on schools alone to do the entire job of delivering on our communities’ social contract to nurture children. School closures have forced us to recognize the need for what we should have been doing for a long time, coming together, formally organizing as communities, to meet our children, each and every one, where they are and offer them the support and opportunities they need to become successful adults. Our future depends upon it.