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School Climate & Safety Opinion

School Closures Always Hurt. They Hurt Even More Now

By Sally Nuamah, Ryan Good, Ariel Bierbaum & Elaine Simon — June 08, 2020 5 min read
35Nuamah IMG ilyaliren iStock

America at large is facing two pandemics: racism and COVID-19. But, low-income Black and Brown children in America are facing one more, the temporary and permanent closure of their schools.

For Black and Brown children living in poverty, the school building is a portal for crucial assistance, where students, their families, and members of the broader community receive a variety of resources from free meals to flu shots. The closure of the school building deactivates the distribution of those same resources, and in doing so, reveals the irreplaceable role that they place in filling the gaping holes in our weak social safety net.

Closed school buildings result in a loss of routine child care that makes going to work every day possible for the 11 million parents with school-aged children who live in poverty. For the nearly 1.5 million students experiencing homelessness, school closures remove an important source of stability and access to social workers and health-care providers. For the 13 million children experiencing hunger, they disrupt a critical source of food that students rely on to maintain a nutritional diet.

Since closed, institutions have worked to continue providing these supports but their efforts are not enough. A recent report by Reuters found that roughly 75 percent of districts have served 4.5 million fewer meals a week since closing, and about a third stopped providing federally required services to their special needs’ students. Local stories from Evanston, Ill., to Philadelphia further confirm the inability for school systems to provide the same level of service while physically shuttered.

There are actions that federal and local policymakers can take to mitigate the harms, both immediately and once this pandemic ends."

This is a tragedy. It is also a moment with lessons that we cannot afford to miss. Schools play important roles beyond educating our children: They house them, feed them and accommodate their unique needs.

We are scholars who study school closures, although not quite like what’s happening during the coronavirus pandemic. We investigate the ways in which permanent school closures negatively affect communities that rely on these institutions for social and political connection, kinship and belonging, public space, and civic mobilization. These negative impacts fall disproportionately on places with higher numbers of people living in poverty and on Black and Brown communities, further entrenching racial disparities in schools and neighborhoods.

And while the effects of temporary school closures differ in many important ways from permanent closures, we expect similar consequences—beyond the much-discussed loss of learning—to ripple across the many dimensions that tie local communities to their schools. In response to protests and riots on behalf of Black people killed by the police, for example, Chicago recently decided to temporarily suspend its meal program for 24 hours, leaving thousands of students without access to free food. (An average of more than 200,000 meals have been handed out daily in the city to families in need since the schools closed in March.) This decision illustrated how easily these pandemics—race, closings, and COVID-19—converge leaving schools to reckon with the question of their role in this moment.

Calls to action have been made to remove cops from schools, to redevelop the curriculum to focus on anti-racist pedagogy, and to develop mechanisms to reduce learning loss across race. These are all efforts that we endorse and support, but they all require one important thing: increased funding for our schools. Increased funding will not only support these necessary changes at the school level but also ensure that educational institutions may adequately support the welfare functions they have taken on as America’s social safety net has weakened.

To be sure, the fact that our most vulnerable neighbors are reliant on schools for meeting basic physical, social, and emotional needs makes clear that our social safety net is woefully inadequate to mitigate the consequences of the rapidly escalating inequality in this country. Nonetheless, it also makes painfully apparent that this is a role that schools play even now—and that they will continue to play when the most acute threat has passed.

Temporary school closures are certainly necessary for public health at this moment. And summer will follow shortly after. But there are actions that federal and local policymakers can take to mitigate the harms, both immediately and once this pandemic ends. At the federal level, the next stimulus package should be built around a conception of schools as integral to our welfare state. It should include money for social service and medical supports to deal with the damaging mental and physical health impacts associated with the lingering effects of COVID-19 and racism. It should include support for community-wide infrastructure such as community alternative policing in schools and funding for schools to radically re-imagine curricula and achievement paradigms to be anti-racist and intersectional.

At the state and local levels, any new threats to close schools—and we expect there will be many in the face of post-pandemic budget cuts—should be confronted with an accurate understanding of what schools actually do. Rather than evaluate schools with a narrow focus on academic performance, enrollment, or building capacity, which often perpetuate inequities, we call on districts and the public to judge schools on their broader civic and social purposes. We urge school districts and the public to think creatively, not only about how to make up for loss of learning but also loss of social, mental, and physical health support that schools provide every day in lieu of an adequate social safety net.

The current $13.5 billion allocated under the CARES Act is not enough—and currently faces the threat of further dilution as the U.S. Department of Education seeks to divert more of it to private school students in ways that would diminish funds available for the most vulnerable students in public schools.

In the end, the closure of schools has revealed the many roles that schools play, particularly in the lives of our most disinvested Black and Brown communities. And we demand that all responses to these diverging pandemics of racism, COVID-19, and school closure position public schools as a necessary part of any and all discussions, plans, and budgets regarding America’s welfare state and thus the democratic future of this nation. The mental, social, physical, educational, political, and social well-being of the 50.8 million students, their families, and our entire society depends on it.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2020 edition of Education Week as School Closures Always Hurt. They Hurt Even More Now

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