After All This Trauma, Equity & Access Will Start With Prioritizing the Mental Health of Students & Teachers

After All This Trauma, Equity & Access Will Start With Prioritizing the Mental Health of Students & Teachers

By Kevin E. Baird

American democracy rests upon the concept of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This is the essential mission of public schools. As we emerge from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more disruption on the horizon, we must redefine our concept of access. The “A” in FAPE must shift to stand for “Accessible.”

Over the past three years, as my co-authors and I researched our book Whole: What Teachers Need to Help Students Thrive, we have journeyed into the most challenged American neighborhoods to find the most successful schools. The lessons they teach can help us re-imagine what it means for education to be truly accessible. Here are four priorities to guide the transformation.

1) Student access to learning begins with student mental health monitoring and intervention.

Students must be mentally and emotionally ready to learn. Distraction, acting out, and student disengagement are not caused by laziness or poor parenting. These behaviors are the autonomic responses of bodies filled with the stress hormone cortisol. They are the result of fear and anger, anxiety and grief.

Just as post-pandemic life will include taking the temperature of shoppers walking into a store, access to learning must begin with immediate and continuous vigilance of student mental health for readiness to learn. Intervention cannot be a long-term response with an IEP. Mental health intervention requires quick, responsive action if we are to ensure access to learning.

2) Equity and access begin with mentally strong teachers and administrators.

The idea for our book began with a provocative finding: teachers are the 4th-most stressed occupation in the United States. According to Gallup, more than 1 in 10 teachers are desperate to leave the profession and more than half of all educators are not fully engaged in their work.

As we visited schools in neighborhoods blighted by poverty and hopelessness (a sort of “urban battlefield”) we found one central, common factor across schools that were succeeding despite their local environment: a priority of caring for the mental well-being of their educators. Successful student learning outcomes began with prioritizing teachers’ mental health and feeding their collective self-confidence.

Many teachers are part of an aging demographic, so we can expect some of our colleagues will not return this fall, taken from us by COVID-19. A greater number will be impacted by the loss of a loved one, by the emotional hardships of social confinement, and by the increased anxiety caused by economic uncertainty for their family. We cannot expect educators to return to us this fall without mental and emotional needs resulting from their grief, their economic anxiety, and their personal loss.

Good schools begin with great leaders. The mental health, positive outlook, and self-confidence of our school leaders are equally important. What is true for teachers is also true for our leadership. They will need care and support.

We must honor that many of our teachers and leaders do not yet possess the skills to effectively respond to student trauma. We must recognize that our schools have rarely prioritized the mental and emotional health needs of our adults. And we must understand that skills for self-care and response to trauma are not acquired in a day or two of “professional development.” We are facing a long-haul mental health triage to support our teachers and staff so that they, in turn, can support our students and deliver equitable, accessible education.

3) Grade level is shifting downward, and student access requires urgent action.

Each fall, students return to school having lost a few months of reading skill and mathematic fluency development due to “summer slide.” Districts traditionally respond to this reality by providing for review in the fall, using placement tests, and mapping curriculum across grades. Our reality has changed. Grade level readiness for fall has shifted backwards.

In a real-time study of learning impacts during the COVID-19 crisis, I have joined my colleagues at the Successful Practices Network to analyze data from the online reading platform ACHIEVE3000. Our findings have urgent implications for back-to-school planning. At the time of this writing:

  • There is a 17% access gap in the at-home learning environment between already high-performing students and struggling learners.
  • For students who have digital access, there is 21% participation gap between already high-performing students and struggling learners.
  • Even among high-performing students, more than one-third are no longer engaged in continuous learning.
  • The effort required to set up online learning has led to 2 to 3 weeks of lost teaching time. Coupled with the fact that learning takes longer in a high-stress environment, and assuming we’ll see the expected “summer slide” impact, we believe students may enter school in fall 2020 with six months or more of learning loss.

Access to grade-level materials will be impossible for many of our students returning in the fall, as their skill development will have plateaued in March and slid backwards from there. It is not hyperbole to expect a further half-year reduction in skill level. A tsunami of student and teacher frustration, anxiety, and failure is building at home, and will crash upon our schools as they re-open in the fall.

Districts must respond by placing Equity of Access and Acceleration at the top of their strategic planning agendas. We must act quickly to use fall placement data for intervention. And we must not ration our best reading and math acceleration tools to just a few, but rather aggressively support the fastest-possible skill-building for every single student.

4) We must urgently adapt to a new learning ecosystem.

Throughout history, the impact of extreme and widespread natural disasters has transformed the environment. The meteor strike which led to dinosaur extinction happened in an instant, with devastating transformation over time. The sudden eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815 unleashed three years of extreme and destructive weather worldwide. The primary outcome of the Spanish Flu pandemic was a loss in cognitive ability and future achievement of the impacted generation. In 90 days, our modern learning environment has shifted. We must urgently respond to successfully adapt.

We must adjust the design of our classrooms to allow for flexibility to meet physical distancing requirements. Our policies regarding who can enter our buildings; the layout of our common spaces like cafeterias, and requirements for cleaning and care must immediately change. Our expenditures must shift to materials which accelerate learning growth for all students, not just those with an IEP. And we must consider our digital learning ecosystem to be equally important as our physical learning ecosystem.

Free Accessible Public Education is our critical mission. Access to learning requires a mental and emotional readiness to learn, and readiness to teach. Access requires content which adapts when our skills slide backwards, and which accelerates all learners to provide equity of opportunity. Access requires adaptation within a transformed ecosystem, shifted overnight to one where relationships between students and teachers are more important than curriculum and pedagogy, and where digital infrastructure is as important as the physical plant. Access has shifted. So must we.

Kevin E. Baird serves as chairman at the non-profit Center for College & Career Readiness. He is a recognized leader in the application of technology for accelerated human learning and development. He provides free tools for schools at Habitat4Heroes.org.