Our View: Post-COVID, let’s build schools that work for everyone | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools


New school board members were chosen across Maine last week, while others were re-elected. Along with school administrators, staff, parents and communities at large, they face a challenge unlike any other before.

Students now have not had a normal school year since 2018-19 as they continue to deal with the restrictions and disruptions of the COVID era. Some have never had one.

From what we know so far, many students have felt the impact of these strange times enormously. They are suffering both academically and emotionally, and we simply don’t know how that will play out over the remainder of their education – or the rest of their lives even.

Every school board across the state must make it their mission to get students back to where they need to be.

At the same time, they should use the opportunity to build stronger schools, ones that don’t have the inequities that have been so apparent during the pandemic.

STUDENTS FALL BEHIND

The Augusta Board of Education recently heard just what schools are up against. Administrators reported an increase in behavior problems in the first two months of the school year, with a record number of suspensions — the result, they say, of students who have missed nearly two full years of school having trouble acclimating to days in a school building.

Particularly concerning are the youngest students, those just starting school after spending their important early years surrounded by the uncertainty and upheaval of the pandemic.

A lot of students simply aren’t yet in the right frame of mind to learn, a bad sign when they are already behind where they should be.

Students returning to in-person learning were about four or five months behind where they should have been, a McKinsey study found. That’s true across grade levels, and it’s concerning by itself.

But it’s also an average. Some students, particularly low-income and minority students, are further behind, putting their future in school in question.

That’s a reflection of the inequities in K-12 education that existed well before COVID as much anything about the virus or the pandemic itself.

It’s also an opportunity. The federal pandemic response has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to schools in Maine alone to address fallout from the pandemic, a significant portion of which must be spent on learning regression and emotional support for students.

The money is unprecedented, and it would be a waste to spend it to support the same old framework.

Instead, it should be used not only to bring students back to where they should be, but also to close the historic achievement gaps between groups of students, and between schools in communities with significant resources and those without.

BUILD BETTER SCHOOLS

It must be used to build better school systems, ones that don’t leave some students behind as a matter of course, or don’t leave some communities well behind others.

In the short term, that starts by keeping schools open, through vaccinations, masks and regular testing, as well as with community support – the less COVID is circulating, the easier it will be for students to stay in school.

Schools need to re-engage with students whose connection to school has waned over the last year and a half, and support students in their academics, as they make up for lost time, and with their broader emotional and social needs.

Many are already doing this. Lewiston schools, for instance, have used federal funds to hire dozens of academic and social-emotional interventionists, who can provide the one-on-one attention that experts say is crucial to closing learning gaps. They are also increasing after- and summer-school programming.

Schools shouldn’t be afraid to try new things, either, to support students who have been left unsupported in the past, and who now find their future at risk.

It’s important for communities to support this work, too. Our education system leaves too many kids behind in the best of conditions, and COVID only made it worse. It’s time we recognize that strong communities need strong schools, and that strong schools don’t put some students above others.

It’s time we recognize that schools must work for everyone, or they don’t work at all.


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