The pandemic hit us all in February. Every single person in this world has been impacted in all areas of life. We have been impacted academically, emotionally, physically, psychologically, economically and socially. No matter who you are, your vulnerabilities have been exposed.
One of the most vulnerable groups to the disruptions of the pandemic are our students. In 2019, approximately 56.6 million students attended elementary and secondary school in the United States. Of this number 30 million receive free or reduced lunch and 7.1 million receive special education services. Due to the pandemic, we anticipate these numbers will increase.
Many of our students are at home learning virtually right now. The debate surrounding masks in schools or not, attending virtually or not, participating in extracurricular activities or not, is not the intent of this article.
This article is about planning as we move through the pandemic, planning success for students who might be most harmed by the current disruptions to normalcy.
Aid at-risk students
Our vulnerable students are typically students identified as at risk — for truancy, for being a parent, for supporting their parents, for having a parent in jail, for begin a so-so reader, for being a foster kid, for having a home that is food insecure or has no permanent address, for being abused, for abusing drugs, for any or all the above and for a never-ending number of factors that stack-up against too many young people who need additional supports to move towards graduation.
As educators, we need to start planning now. Yes, NOW! At-risk students will return to school with heavier items weighing down their backpacks when we return to “normal.” So, whether your students are learning remotely, in person, or a blend of the two, here are some things to implement now:
Double the focus on kids on the bubble. Add more graduation coaches, more counselors, more community mentors to the mix. With it seeming highly likely that the 2020-21 school year will have COVID outbreaks, continuity struggles, and enormous community and media focus, at-risk students are more likely than most to avoid school, fall behind, check out, and drop out.
It is important to plan, implement, evaluate and adjust supports to meet students’ academic needs as well as nonacademic needs like shelter, food, clothing and so much more.
Make plans for supporting at-risk students via the phone, Zoom, or off-campus meetings. At-risk students with a champion are much more likely to complete graduation requirements. Persistent champions nag, cajole, tease, and bond with at-risk kids and improve their lives. “If it wasn’t for Mrs. Smith … ” is a frequently heard comment from a kid in a mortar board.
Practice, practice, practice exit exams, comprehension checks and math tests. In addition, focus on students’ social and emotional health. Give them an opportunity to talk. Uncertainly about each day and the near-term horizon weighs on young people as they consider their futures. Remind them that the pandemic will end and that good decisions made today about school will pay off for years to come.
Communicate with the parents. School-home communication is a powerful tool for supporting at-risk students. Keep parents informed on the status of their son or daughter — what credits they are missing, their attendance rates, the exit exam hurdles ahead, and their student’s level of engagement. Parents know what a game changer a high school diploma can be, and they’ll be thankful for the school’s concern for their child. Not every parent is reachable and not all parents care, but for those who do, good communication increases the likelihood of a diploma.
Call on outside expertise. Groups like Communities In Schools, ChanceLight Education and many other businesses and nonprofits are excellent partners who provide support to at-risk students and increase graduation rates. It is not a failure for school districts to partner with such groups but a utilization of all the resources at hand to benefit students.
There is no time like the present for education leaders to REENGAGE, RECOVER AND REIMAGINE what school will look like in the future. It is time to start planning NOW!
Shaunna D. Finley, Ph.D. is a school board member at Portage Township Schools in Portage and a staff member at Communities In Schools, National Office. She authored a chapter, titled “Plant a Seed,” in the Leader Reader: Narratives of Experience and is a scholarly researcher in Career and Technical Education. John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D. is a director of ChanceLight Education, which works under contract with school districts in 20 states to serve students with special needs and students at risk of leaving school. He is co-author of “We’re In This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and numerous by-lines and opinion pieces. The opinions are the writers’.