Over the past year and a half, many of us were forced to assume multiple roles. We have been parents and employees, teachers, principals and cafeteria workers, rolled into one. This collision of work, school and home life has been a massive challenge. Families have experienced enormous stress due to seclusion, isolation, disruption and illness. And yet, we can feel the hope of summer. Mask mandates have been relaxed or lifted in some states. We’ve created memes to help us laugh during a traumatic year. Breaks from school are here and it seems relief is close at hand.
But imagine that in addition to the above challenges, you did not have the money or the technology for an internet connection at home this past year. Imagine you had difficulties accessing a computer with which your child could attend school, or that you did not have the money to feed them lunch every day. Imagine helping your child, or someone else’s child, succeed at virtual school under all these circumstances, while more family members and friends than you could count on your two hands became sick or died of COVID-19.
We learned directly from our School System Administrator partners and from families participating in the Richmond Resilience Initiative that many members of our own community navigated these challenges from March 2020 until now. These scenarios highlight why many of our students and educators will be returning to school in September dealing with some level of trauma.
A recent study conducted by our policy partner, The Commonwealth Institute (TCI) found that “[m]any students, particularly those whose parents could not afford private supports, have fallen behind in the virtual learning environment.” Another study cited by TCI “suggests that an additional investment of roughly $10,000 per student in school divisions with high concentrations of students living in poverty, Black and Latinx students, and English Learners is required to make up for lost learning time during the pandemic.”
The lost learning time cited by TCI must be addressed; however, a broader and more far-reaching concern is the social and emotional well-being of our students and educators. Recent studies confirm the depth of the damage caused to mental health across the country because of the pandemic. In fact, damage to mental health is being viewed, and prepared for, as the “next pandemic”.
Hearing directly from community partners, school division leaders and striving families offers a window into the collective trauma experienced over the past year and a half, particularly for communities of color and those living in poverty.
One common theme we hear is the resilience of families in the face of broken support systems. A partner at the YMCA described the humbling experience of working with parents in our community who were forced to choose between keeping their employment and keeping their children in school. Families showed creativity and determination, going to great lengths to keep their children logged-in and learning during the pandemic. For example, in the absence of access to home internet or programs that would help bridge such gaps, a common occurrence in communities of color, several parents of school-aged children came together to rent a motel room where their children could connect to wifi and log on for classes each day.
Another common theme of these collected stories is the pressure put on teachers to manage the mental and emotional wellbeing of their students, even as they are dealing with personal hardship and trauma. One of our school administrator partners lost 18 friends and family members to the pandemic, a level of loss many of our Black, Hispanic or low-income students experienced as well. Both educators and students will be carrying the impact of these losses, and their grief, with them as they reenter school.
Closing the education gap exacerbated by the pandemic is now a real and pressing challenge facing our community; however, addressing education on its own will not be enough. With almost 40% of Richmond’s children living in poverty and the pandemic exposing critical gaps in access to behavioral healthcare across racial groups and socioeconomic bands, the far reaching impacts the pandemic has had on social-emotional health and wellbeing are likely to persist long after the pandemic is over. We now know that our ability to address mental and behavioral health and help students heal will set the stage for their educational recovery.
We invite our partners and peer funders to join us in reflecting on ways we can address the educational losses created by the pandemic, while reevaluating educational priorities to address the disruption, trauma and stress experienced by our educators, our students and their families over the past 18 months.
As Robins Foundation’s VP of Program and Community Innovation, Robert Dortch, states, “We have to think differently, fund differently, lead differently, act differently, advocate differently, use our power and influence differently if we’re going to change the outcomes for children and families who are suffering.” Whether it is creating more opportunities for social and emotional learning and trauma-informed curriculum, partnering with our local government to create mobile health services, or other solutions, the Robins Foundation will be thinking differently about how to impact and influence educational recovery in our post-pandemic world.