We know that many of the learning gaps among student groups stem from disparities in both access to and quality of learning time and opportunities. Right now, even higher-income families can see the impact that gaps in learning and socialization time are having on their children. But as COVID-19 continues to exacerbate educational disparities between kids whose families can afford to provide or pay for learning supports and effective environments, and those who cannot, our hope is that this also brings a greater understanding and empathy for children for whom access to expanded learning has always been a challenge.
Research has shown that high-quality expanded learning programs can significantly reduce educational disparities, and it would be an enormous missed opportunity if our school system did not heavily lean on expanded learning partners as they plan for the coming school year.
These four practices are critical steps schools can take to ensure that children can thrive during and beyond this challenging time:
1 – Assess student needs with a focus on equity
As they make plans for the fall, schools should identify vulnerable student groups, including children of essential workers in need of care, foster and homeless youth, low-income students, and students in need of additional educational support, social-emotional support, or other identified needs. Schools should then reflect on what has and has not worked in the implementation of distance learning, community partnerships, communication tools and platforms, and meal programs—with a focus on participation and outcomes for these vulnerable groups. Program planning should be guided by parent and community input and intentional outreach, scheduling, and enrollment strategies.
2 – Break down silos & tap community partners to become more agile and identify creative solutions
Now is the time to break down institutional silos in the interest of taking care of kids. No one system, be it schools, health agencies, or community-based organizations, can singularly address the enormous and growing needs of students and their families. Schools need to think creatively to safely provide the care that students need. Community-based youth-serving organizations, city park and recreation programs, libraries, regional and state parks, and other entities have trained adults and resources that can be used to help reduce adult-student ratios, assist with schoolwork, provide enrichment and outdoor activities, and support students’ emotional well-being.
3 – Develop a shared roadmap of student success that includes expanded learning
Leaders from districts, schools, and expanded learning programs should begin joint planning as soon as possible, developing shared goals and practices across educational outcomes, social-emotional learning and behavior management, attendance, health and wellness, and student and family engagement. To solidify these shared goals and maximize resources and time, districts should provide professional development to their school-day and afterschool staff in tandem on safety protocols, student behavior guidelines and plans, distance learning, and family engagement.
4 – Look toward Summer 2021
By summer 2021, students will have experienced more than a year of disrupted learning and a great deal of social disconnection, regardless of the combination of virtual and in-person learning in the coming year. Providing summer learning opportunities next summer for as many students as possible will be essential for getting students back on track and re-engaged. Summer also provides a training ground for staff, teachers, and site administrators for integration and collaboration in blended staffing models (CBO staff, counselors, paraprofessionals) and more planning time for teachers and administrators.
Coordinating across a community’s collective resources is urgent for all student groups across race, socio-economics, language, ability, geography. However, students whose families have the time, space, and resources to provide supportive at-home learning environments and the ability to supplement their child’s learning with exposure to other experiences, learning supports, or enrichment opportunities will have distinct advantages that will allow them to weather this storm much more effectively than students who lack one or more of these things. If we truly care about equity in the education system, educators and administrators must come together with communities and families to tap into the expanded learning field’s creativity and resourcefulness in assertive ways.
For more information about how schools can partner with expanded learning for reopening plans, look out for Partnership for Children & Youth’s upcoming brief with The Opportunity Institute.
For breakfast, I had a fried egg sandwich with sharp cheddar cheese.