Editor’s note: In this commentary, Jawan Brown-Alexander, Chief of Schools for New Schools for New Orleans, proposes that it’s possible to take what has been learned from the coronavirus pandemic and use it to reimagine what schools could look like in two, five or even 15 years. The piece originally published April 29 on Education Post.

I am a former school leader and a current educational strategist who works with charter leaders from across New Orleans. Together, we have been thinking about the intersection of educational inequity and the disparate impact of COVID-19. With so much instability in our children’s educational experience, we know that high-quality curriculum matters more than ever before. We are considering what to do now to support our children, as well as what comes next. 

Scientists continue to work on ways to stop this pandemic—and when they finally do, we will turn the page and look to the future. It’s hard to believe now, but folks will get back to work, restart the economy, and begin to see past this horrifying time in our nation’s history. When we rush back to our lives, however, we will still face the reverberating impacts that are coming from this crisis, especially in our minority communities.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley said it best in a recent tweet—“Our Black and brown communities face a crisis within a crisis.” In Louisiana, for instance, while Black residents make up around 30% of the state’s population, as of April 20, 56% of Louisianans who have died from COVID-19 have been Black. 

That inequity is not only found in the toll of the virus itself. We will also see an impact on those people of color who faced insecurity in jobs, food or housing even before this moment. And we will see an impact in our education system, too. In Louisiana, as in many states, school buildings will be closed through the end of the school year; the learning loss that normally occurs during the summer is now a real risk even before summer begins. The cost of a slow rollout of distance learning could be significant, and take the greatest toll on children of color. 

When the virus hit, schools and districts with mostly White and affluent students could have the confidence that most of their students would be able to fully engage with online distance learning right away. For districts like New Orleans, with mostly students of color and students who are economically disadvantaged, quick efforts to roll out online distance learning faced a significant barrier: Many children lacked the technology needed to connect.

Taking action to keep kids connected and learning

Our district leadership took immediate action to purchase the materials those students needed, but it takes time to procure, safeguard and distribute technology citywide. Many of our students were—and are—also dealing with housing and food insecurity that makes it more difficult to launch and maintain an at-home learning environment. 

This is not unique to New Orleans. Across our nation, districts that serve mostly students of color, and those with high rates of economically disadvantaged students, will face a steeper climb than others when it comes to distance learning. But by having a strong, clear distance learning plan, we can make sure closed buildings do not mean closed schools and drastic educational losses.   

This means connecting students with technology, if at all possible. It also means continuous engagement with students and families, through the phone, the internet, or both. And it remains as important as ever to provide a high-quality, standards-aligned curriculum. We cannot fully control that students may take in less material than usual right now. We can control whether or not that material is the highest quality it can be. 

Many Tier-1 curriculum vendors are providing updated materials for a distance learning context online. Schools can take advantage of this, lowering the lift of translating existing materials for a new kind of delivery. Schools can also continue to provide their teachers with (virtual) professional development around their Tier-1 curriculum, so they can better adjust to this “new normal.”

Academics are only one part of the response

Academics are just one part of this, though. A strong distance learning plan also takes students’ basic needs and mental health into account. During this pandemic, Black and Brown children will lose loved ones at a disproportionate rate compared to their White peers; this will take a deep emotional toll. An incredibly high number of New Orleans’ children had already experienced trauma prior to this event, and this horrible crisis could cause those numbers to increase.  

It is imperative, then, that our distance learning plans involve connecting mental health experts, like social workers, to provide support to students, families, and school staff members who have been heavily impacted by this crisis. Resources for physical health care, food, shelter, and more remain critical as well. We can leverage external partnerships to help do so—they are more important than ever. Making certain that students receive vital supports is key to the strength of our community and the growth and health of our students.  

We can reimagine what school looks like

We must maintain our focus on the present moment and through the close of the school year. But we must also look even further ahead. There is much we will learn from this crisis—from how to support students experiencing trauma, to how to connect children to local resources, to how to best leverage technology. We can take what we have learned to reimagine what school will look like in the next two, five, or even fifteen years. We can also join in conversations with our families, community members, fellow educators and students themselves about what we will need from federal, state, and local officials as we re-open schools.   

Together, we can keep this crisis from digging even wider educational divides. Our children of color already face great inequities. If we focus on distance learning and whole-child support, and keep an eye on the future, we can help keep them safe and learning today and expand their opportunities tomorrow.    

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