By Aziah Siid | Word In Black

student getting a lesson from a laptop

(WIB) – The aftermath of pandemic-related remote learning — and the new challenges of in-person schooling — has politicians, educators, and caregivers scrambling. Addressing mental health, the decline in student achievement, and the adoption (or not) of proper COVID-19 protocols continue to be among the most pressing issues facing public schools. 

So what needs to happen to ensure children ramp back up academically, even as COVID-19 cases start to surge in some parts of the nation? It turns out a combination of tried-and-true solutions, as well as new innovations, are needed to keep the nation’s schools on track.

The Need for Equitable Funding for Public Schools

Pre-pandemic till today, budget cuts continue to leave many educators  — particularly in underserved communities — wondering how they can support their students and keep COVID-19 infections down. 

“As of recently, it’s become evident that we don’t have enough money within our budget to support what needs to happen in our schools,” veteran educator Jose Vilson, the executive director of EduColor — an inclusive collective founded in 2014 that supports and mobilizes educational advocates — tells Word In Black. 

“The United States is underfunding our public schools by nearly $150 billion annually, robbing millions of children — predominantly minority and low-income children — of the opportunity to succeed.”CENTURY FOUNDATION

“Being able to say we’re actually going to supplement what’s happening within schools with more funding for every child is an appropriate step.”  

As a whole, education spending in the United States falls short of benchmarks set by international organizations like UNESCO. The nation puts 11.6% of public funding toward education, well below the international standard of 15.00%. 

In addition, as a 2020 study from the Century Foundation found, thanks to aggregate funding gaps, “The United States is underfunding our public schools by nearly $150 billion annually, robbing millions of children — predominantly minority and low-income children — of the opportunity to succeed.”

With school funding impacted by state and local decision-making — like the more than $370 million in cuts to New York City schools — students aren’t receiving the comprehensive, high-quality educational experience they deserve.

The Need for Continued COVID-19 Protections

Katrice Bryson, the parent of a seventh-grader at KIPP Washington Heights Middle School in New York City, says she’s recently had to transition her child back to a remote-learning model. That’s because the school temporarily shut down after 17 of 54 teachers called out sick. 

“Add mandates. Add a mask mandate. Up the testing,”KATRICE BRYSON, MOTHER OF TWO

The 42-year-old mom, who is an immunocompromised person, says less money going to schools doesn’t just impact things like the school having proper equipment — like laptops and inclusive software that facilitates learning. Less money also means less personal protective equipment as well, which she believes needs to be heavily enforced in schools. 

“Add mandates. Add a mask mandate. Up the testing,” Bryson says of the need for more COVID-19 protocols. “Up the mandates and cleaning. I think that’s another problem why they’re getting sick. They don’t clean in between.” 

Through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, Congress allocated nearly $200 billion to the nation’s public schools. Districts could use that money to, for example, improve heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems. But not all districts have used their funds — and when local budgets get cut, money for COVID-19 protocols gets put on the chopping block.

The Need for Remote Learning Flexibility

The shutdown of in-person instruction revealed some of the improvements policymakers and educators need to make to create better learning environments for Black and brown students. 

Research on the effects of remote learning during the pandemic shows the intense need for social and emotional learning, adjustments to student punishment, and the need for remote learning to possibly be incorporated permanently for students who thrive in that structure. 

74% of white teens preferred complete in-person instruction, compared to  only 51% of Black teens.PEW RESEARCH CENTER

Vilson says he remotely taught middle school students in New York City at the beginning of the pandemic. He says he saw some students thrive academically from being able to complete their work from home. 

“There has to be some form of remote option for at least a small subset of children who felt like they did better without having all the distractions of the school and all that other stuff,” he says. 

A Pew Research Center survey conducted this spring found 74% of white teens preferred complete in-person instruction, compared to only 51% of Black teens. Some Black students have expressed how the remote learning model offered them an opportunity to thrive emotionally and academically — and their parents saw the difference.

Bryson said although she wasn’t thrilled at the sudden change, she wasn’t worried about her daughter’s performance because her daughter, who is diagnosed with ADHD,  did well during the pandemic. 

“My daughter had a tutor from school, and the tutor I paid for out of pocket, so she had the support,“ Bryson says. 

“Politics are getting in the way of the actual job of caring about children and families and teachers and everybody who’s involved,” Vilson says. JOSE VILSON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF EDUCOLOR

It turns out a return to 100% in-person learning didn’t work for Bryson’s daughter 

“Unfortunately, when she started back in August, she was doing OK, then she plummeted,” Bryson says.

The Need for More Support Staff

Among educators working in low-income schools, 79% ranked mental health in their top five priorities for funding, but only 14% of them felt prepared to support children who’ve experienced trauma through the COVID-19 years, according to a survey from educational nonprofit First Book and the Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s On Our Sleeves partnership.

Vilson says teachers have traditionally been viewed as people who can do it all, but it’s clear that they need more support through additional staff. 

With increasing numbers of students dealing with mental and emotional crises, more counselors and school psychologists are needed to ensure students are supported — and relieve the caseload of existing staff.

“Politics are getting in the way of the actual job of caring about children and families and teachers and everybody who’s involved,” Vilson says. 

Increasing child therapists in school buildings, and providing the proper PPE, and computers for low-income students is only part of making educators and caregivers feel confident schools will be able to boost student achievement and contain COVID-19 through the remainder of the year. 

“Making sure that all parents know that we have mitigations still happening within our schools,” is essential, Vilson says. ”Just because the CDC has come out with certain guidelines doesn’t mean we can’t take one step higher than that.”