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Schools and Community Resilience

As leaders plan for the fall, they must prioritize the vital community support that schools provide, especially during a pandemic

June 30, 2020
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While there’s a lot of buzz about how well (or poorly) schools transitioned to remote instruction, providing an effective and equitable education means delivering more than just academic services to families and communities in the midst of a pandemic.  

“In fact, focusing solely on schools’ capacities to provide high-quality remote learning opportunities to students at scale may perversely weaken communities, as such a focus fails to recognize schools’ diverse and far-reaching roles in promoting community resilience,” writes a team of researchers from the Justice in Schools initiative, which includes postdoctoral fellow Jacob Fay, HGSE Professor Meira Levinson, University of Wisconsin Professor Harry Brighouse, and Ph.D. students Allison Stevens and Tatiana Geron.

The researchers explore the role of schools as a focal point for community resilience in a new white paper for the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard.

They identify five ways that schools normally support community resilience, all of which are challenged by physical closures.

1.    Social Welfare

  • Schools provide services ranging from food to nursing and mental health care to millions of children every year. While many social workers, special education professionals, and therapists are trying to continue to provide services at a distance, many students are waiting for schools to reopen to receive essential care.
  • Reports of child abuse are commonly made by school professionals. Data show that child welfare referrals are down up to 50% since schools closed, as educators find it more difficult to detect and report abuse.
  • Meal access is also shockingly low at a time when one-fifth to one-third of families with children report food insecurity, according to the report.

2.    Human Development

  • In addition to widely-documented concerns about academic learning loss and learning inequities, schools support students’ social-emotional development and provide children crucial opportunities to build relationships with peers and caring adults. Even synchronous video sessions have failed to overcome many students’ sense of isolation, the report cautions.

3.    Childcare

4.    Stable Employment

  • U.S. public and private schools employ roughly 8.6 million people, but that source of stable employment is threatened by budget cuts predicted for schools across the board. The paper cites one prediction that estimates a 15% cut in school spending will result in the loss of 300,000 teaching jobs, not to mention additional school staff like bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers.

5.    Democratic Solidarity

  • While segregation is an ongoing problem, research suggests that schools that are effectively integrated along the lines of race, class, language, and citizenship reduce prejudice, increase comfort with diverse groups of people, and improve overall wellbeing. School closures may shut students off from the benefits of learning in a diverse setting.
  • Schools provide physical gathering spaces for community-based organizations like the PTA and children’s sports leagues, serve as polling sites, and even as temporary shelters during natural disasters.
  • Classrooms often serve as an equalizing space. In the virtual classrooms created in the wake of school closures, possibilities for shared experiences and everyday interactions were limited — and these virtual spaces “often showcase disparate home settings and family dynamics that can challenge students’ sense of membership, identity, or peer status,” the white paper states.

How will schools continue to act as resilience builders this fall? The researchers offer three concluding recommendations for leaders and policymakers, in order to bolster schools’ capacities in those five domains:

  • State and district leaders who are actively planning for the 2020–21 school year should set metrics for achieving access and equity in each of the five roles that schools play, not just in academic learning.
  • To establish these metrics, policymakers should develop or strengthen mechanisms to engage diverse community voices, as local community members often best understand the specific ways in which their own schools support (or impede) community resilience.
  • Congress should increase federal funding to support public education in this unprecedented time. Pandemic-resilient schools will require greater investments in instructional capacity, updates to physical infrastructure for everything from classroom layouts to air flow, and robust funding for social welfare services including meal provision, nurses, guidance counselors, and social workers. States and local communities cannot shoulder this investment burden alone.
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