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It is an understatement to say that back-to-school this year is unusual and filled with uncertainty. As youth serving professionals, community leaders, and families, our ability to model tolerance of today’s uncertainty will be crucial to helping our children and youth navigate this time. COVID-19 continues to challenge schedules and social interactions. Living with uncertainty while still enjoying learning, friendships, and interactions with supportive adults will be among the important lessons they receive.

School, at its best, is a great place to learn important skills and new ideas, develop friendships, explore new activities, and prepare for future careers. Schools can also expand a student’s world view through learning about world history, languages, cultures, and the arts. The value and skills that professional teachers bring to all of these experiences were spotlighted last spring, as many families faced supporting e-learning tasks at home.

We also know that positive social interactions are good for kids, with a large portion of peer interactions happening at and after school. Schools support students’ social-emotional development including teaching valuable long-term skills such as collaboration, self-regulation, and growth mindset. Research suggests that schools also often support a student’s sense of community and civic engagement.  School buildings provide gathering spaces for organizations, such as PTA meetings, that exist to support students and educators. Schools also provide a range of basic needs and social services, such as food distribution, nursing services, and behavioral health care, to thousands of students.

While the pandemic certainly challenged academic teaching, many educators and parents have identified student social-emotional needs and well-being as their main concerns. The pandemic, and the associated rapid move to remote school last spring, created a sense of isolation for countless children and youth. Many students are waiting for schools to reopen to receive essential counseling and mental health services. Child abuse and neglect are frequently first reported by educators, who are trained to look for warning signs. And in many homes, parents of school-aged children face sustained stress as they attempt to balance work and economic concerns with childcare and education changes.

Classrooms are not the only sources for student learning and development. Education outside of the classroom takes many forms – sports, camps, community centers, clubs, and more – and the caring adults leading these programs have adapted their services, creating innovations to connect students with mentors, quality programming, and support services.

Local afterschool programs are a crucial part of every communities’ youth services, providing hands-on learning, leadership opportunities, creative expression and enrichment programs, peer interactions, and workforce support, while also offering families safe and reliable student oversight beyond school hours. In a recent survey, 70% of afterschool programs reported that they continued to serve students in some capacity through the pandemic. Afterschool programs also serve many communities of color, immigrant populations, and low-income families, addressing inequities that have increased as a result of COVID-19.

While school has been a source of positive support and growth for some students, significant opportunity gaps existed across our school systems long before this coronavirus. Risks associated with in-person school include bullying, racism, group exclusion, anxiety, stress, and increased risks of suicide.

The pandemic has raised awareness of the economic and racial disparities that prevent equal access to essential school services. The lack of educational resources and underfunding of schools and afterschool opportunities for communities of color and families with low incomes have left many students without access to all of the benefits school intends to offer. This underscores the need for responsive efforts that level the playing field for vulnerable children. Furthermore, major racial disparities in student discipline rates have been documented for years.

While some kids flourished in the pre-crisis school structure, others did not. Some kids were able to sustain peer relationships within all safety standards while others were isolated either physically, emotionally, or both. The pressures on our students, families, afterschool providers and educators are immense. We can and should be looking for ways to support and uplift all that are working to navigate these uncertain times.

According to a recent survey from USA Today, there appears to be agreement that: we are worried about our children, distance learning is difficult, teachers are working harder, and children will eventually be able to make up lost ground. Experts have developed recommendations for safely reopening schools under certain conditions, including reports from the Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Local schools around the state are exploring complex plans that look to manage the health risks of the virus and the risks of prolonged social isolation. But experts also point out that in-person schooling, if not executed safely, could lead to mental-health, as well as physical health, concerns.

There are many ways we can both protect our students and nourish their academic and social-emotional wellbeing. As we move forward, let’s be flexible in supporting all forms of learning. Let’s support the dauntless teachers and youth workers dedicating their professional lives to helping children. Let’s work to reduce the pressure of grades, tests, social expectations, and constant achievement that we routinely place on kids. At the same time, we can continue to innovate and reimagine education to effectively use and access technology. We must also adjust our efforts to acknowledge the differing impacts on our underserved kids. This is a challenge we will be working on throughout the fall, the school year, and the foreseeable future.

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(Dr. Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at iyi@iyi.org  or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)