By Debbie Zacarian
On April 7, 2020, White House pandemic advisor, Dr. Fauci, stated that the pandemic “shine(s) a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society.” Since the pandemic struck, I’ve been offering online and phone support to educators in their quest to stay connected with students and families, despite their schools being closed for in-person instruction. While the drastic move to remote learning has meant using technologies that none of us could have anticipated or even imagined, there is no question that our global health crisis has also shone a very bright light on what Dr. Fauci referenced—the structural inequities that are occurring in schools and society across the nation. To name just a few startling statistics, consider the following:
- Almost half of the nation’s students live in poverty (Southern Education Foundation, 2015).
- English learners are a rapidly growing and tremendously diverse group. Additionally, sixty percent of their families’ incomes are 185% below poverty level (Grantmakers for Education, 2013).
- Close to half of U.S. students have experienced or are experiencing significant adversity (National Center for Health Statistics, 2013) in the form of abuse, neglect, parental loss, or mental illness and millions have experienced living in war or conflict zones and being persecuted, displaced, and being in constant fear of being deported, or becoming homeless.
These realities are driving many educators to have a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to support its students and families during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A great example is the Brockton Public Schools [BPS] in Brockton, MA. Brockton, a city beset with some of the highest incidents of Covid-19 in the state, has undergone several successive years of dramatic budget reductions. While these have been occurring year after year, one of its core values and a top priority of its Superintendent Michael Thomas is to support the physical and social-emotional well-being of its students. The district’s staffing includes a team of bilingual and bilingual-bicultural community relations facilitators, school adjustment counselors, parent advocates, and paraprofessionals. BPS’ Team has been working for more than a decade to ensure that students feel safe, valued, and competent, as well as a sense of belonging to their classroom and school communities. It has also collaborated closely with families, community service and faith-based agencies in their ongoing efforts to build trust and active family, school, and community partnerships.
When the governor of Massachusetts ordered that all public and residential schools be closed due to the pandemic, Brockton quickly launched a number of proactive efforts. For example, a first priority was to ensure that its universal free breakfast and lunch program continued. Bag meals were prepared in one and distributed to ten different locations. The district created a supply chain ensuring that these food resources were organized and scheduled. It also created an information chain to support family awareness of its ‘bag and go’ food distribution. The district purchased smart phones for the Team to ensure that the type of 1-1 family contacts that had worked successfully before the pandemic continued. Family-school phone calls and texts with adjustment counselors, nurses, parent advocates, bilingual community relations facilitators, principals, and other key personnel have gone a long way in supporting the Brockton Public School community.
The team has also worked feverishly to provide families with information about various community services (e.g., health, food, and work-related assistance). It also launched a call center supported by volunteer school nurses and school adjustment counselors to provide additional assistance. Further, it has offered these much-needed supports to Brockton’s school staff—all of whom have been indirectly or directly impacted by the health crisis. While no team effort ever has a guarantee of 100% success, it greatly helps when a district takes proactive steps, including building a team of bilingual-bicultural counselors, nurses, advocates and paraprofessionals, to provide the physical and social-emotional supports that are needed by students, families, and staff. When this is done, challenges and even crises can be tackled much more successfully. Taking time to build a system-wide team approach makes us all strong, resilient, and responsive to our ever-changing student and family populations.
Debbie Zacarian consults at the federal, state, and district level on education for diverse populations. Her forthcoming book with Ivannia Soto, Responsive Schooling for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students will be published by W. W. Norton in July 2020.