A common refrain in many education circles is the traditional Masai greeting, “And how are the children?” The purpose of repeating this question is to remind teachers, parents, leaders, decision-makers – all adults – that the work of schools should always be in service to the children. If nothing else, the last year has shown us that very few systems have been built and maintained with children in mind. Indeed, we’ve crammed nearly every vital social service for our most vulnerable kids into a single, over-extended delivery system: public schools. And when that delivery system was forced to close because of a global pandemic, we saw just how insufficient our established systems have been for the children and families who rely on them most.
At the same time, we saw teachers, support staff, and administrators take on the challenges of meeting kids’ most basic needs, even though they were no longer in school buildings. School districts in the Houston area and across the country have focused time, energy, and resources on providing food, counseling services, and devices for remote learning to students. The flexibility educators and district employees have shown should be applauded and will hopefully lead to better policy decisions at the state and federal levels.
As time has passed and as school districts have adjusted to new methods of meeting students’ physical, social, and emotional needs, we must also explore new ways to meet their academic needs. In addition to the broader policy conversations, we must begin to talk about how we can ensure that children are learning.
In Houston ISD, the Board of Education hasn’t had an in-depth review of student learning outcomes in over eight months. The pressing needs and emotional trauma of the last year have rightfully taken precedence. What cannot be ignored, however, is the fact that academic gaps – most dramatically experienced by students who were already behind – will be felt for years to come. We cannot remain in the dark about what students actually know or are able to do. Student outcomes must be recentered in board conversations.
The purpose of schools is to make sure that children have the knowledge and skills necessary to build their own futures. And while children from well-resourced families are rarely at risk of falling significantly behind, the COVID-19 crisis has only widened the academic chasm we let under-resourced kids fall into year after year. We cannot wish or hope or preach this inequity away. We have to identify the gaps and deploy every possible resource to address and close them.