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School Climate & Safety Opinion

After the Pandemic Comes the Epidemic of Lost Learning and Family Insecurity

By Rey Saldana — April 14, 2020 5 min read
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This is a challenging time for nonprofits that work with schools to serve the most vulnerable children and their families—including poor students and many students of color who, without a doubt, will be hurt more by the pandemic and its far-reaching consequences than their peers will be. The coronavirus school closures have made clearer than ever that public education is not supported just by public funding but also by nonprofits like the members of the federated network of affiliates I lead. These local organizations work inside schools providing wraparound supports for students in 26 states and the District of Columbia, in urban, rural and suburban America.

We’re doing as much as we can to keep supporting students even when school buildings are closed. Local affiliates of my organization are helping to deliver food in concert with school districts, pantries and food banks. They’re connecting with the children they work with via video chat. They’re hooking students up with online libraries and telehealth counseling. They’re providing financial assistance to families who have lost jobs or been furloughed and whose situations have become even more precarious than they were before the pandemic.

I know how important these supports are, and how much children have lost by not being in school. I grew up in the Southside area of San Antonio, where my family and neighbors often struggled with the effects of poverty and limited access to health care, stable jobs, food security, reliable transportation, and social and emotional support. School was the safest place for me and many of the kids I knew. Now, my heart goes out to the students in every state who have lost access to their safe place because of COVID-19.

Congress must ensure every student in every Title I school in America has access to a staffer who can provide them with integrated supports."

As the pandemic spread across the country and schools closed, the work of our local affiliates and other youth-serving nonprofits had to change. We were able to quickly adapt to social distancing guidelines and continue to fill gaps to meet the needs of students and families as the crisis heightened. Yet, in this ever-changing crisis and as more people become sick, families and communities will be affected in ways we can hardly yet imagine. After the COVID-19 threat lessens, we’ll face an epidemic of lost learning, lost jobs and family security, increased mental illness and trauma, and increased family violence exacerbated by social isolation.

Even in the midst of this pandemic, the nation must prepare for how it will respond to that crisis.

In normal times, polite requests for funding to meet student needs would be enough. But this is an extraordinary time in the history of public education. And so, as Congress is considering a new round of stimulus, we must raise our voices and make this urgent appeal: Give states, schools, and their nonprofit partners the means to support every student and their families—during and after the pandemic.

Soon, nonprofit budgets will be stretched to the max. Among other things, that means less money and human capital for fundraising. States will need far more than the $31 billion allocated for education stabilization in the congressional relief package enacted at the end of last month. That money will help reduce funding cuts for education and essential activities such as serving English-language learners and students with disabilities, continuing remote learning, and providing mental health services. But compare that amount with the more than $53.6 billion for education stabilization allotted to states by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided stimulus funding during the 2008 recession.

Ensuring educational equity will require an even bigger investment because we must address long-standing differences in access to health care, jobs, food, housing and digital tools. Those are the differences that will leave low-income communities and communities of color the most impacted by COVID-19 and its economic and educational consequences. To help the most at-risk students and their families, Congress must ensure every student in every Title 1 school in America has access to a staffer who can provide them with integrated supports, including physical- and mental-health services, housing, food, and assistance with other needs. These critical student services and professionals can no longer be seen as “nice to have.”

Congress should also:

• Increase funding for Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the largest federal funding source dedicated to children attending high-poverty schools, by $12 billion.

• Allocate $2 billion in funding to the E-Rate program, the government’s largest educational technology program, for students who do not have access to broadband internet service, now even more critical than before for student learning.

• Designate at least $175 billion for K-12 education at the state level, with funding allowances for support for youth-serving organizations to provide social-emotional support, mental-health services, and basic needs.

• Provide $250 million in emergency funding to the Corporation for National and Community Service, which oversees national service initiatives such as AmeriCorps, that help nonprofits hire staffers at low cost to tackle emerging community needs.

• Increase the Nita M. Lowey 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program by $500 million. This funding will support grantees in their efforts to provide academic enrichment and remedial instruction to more students, particularly in response to an extended period of potential learning loss, and to prepare students and families for a completely different back-to-school experience this fall.

• Provide $60 billion in emergency assistance loans to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that are serving students, families, and communities during the pandemic and will continue to do so as needs increase post-pandemic.

When I was a local official in my hometown of San Antonio, I saw crisis response every time I rode with our EMTs. The initial response is to identify the level of immediate need, to bandage the wound, and to soothe the patient. As COVID-19 ravages communities, our national nonprofits are responding to the immediate needs, but we also have to dig in for the long haul. That’s the work that’s going to matter when the fog lifts and our students and families deal with the aftershock.

These can’t be stop-gap measures that happen only in the nation’s moment of greatest need. This is a chance for us to refocus our attention and ensure that every child and family has the educational and social resources to survive this unprecedented moment in our nation’s history, heal from the trauma, and thrive far into the future.

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