Amid many lessons to be learned, COVID-19’s disruption of school asks us to pause and reflect on public education’s role in society, its strengths, weaknesses and capacity for reinvention.
We have an opportunity to redesign public education to ensure the academic success, health and empowerment of every student. Our greatest failure would be ignoring glaring historical problems in the current systems that have left so many behind.
The choice is stark. We either sit passively, hoping that things get back to some form of “normal” and continue school as usual. Or we take this historic opportunity to create in New Mexico a world-class system that empowers 100 percent of students.
Today’s students live in a world, and will graduate into a future, with many unknowns. We can’t predict future job markets as technology replaces humans. We can’t know what economic downturns will do to social stability. We can’t know when a public health crisis will drastically disrupt us.
We can predict that in a world that feels unpredictable, even traumatic, students do better in well-resourced schools.
We write this piece as school leaders debate how to move forward. Do we stay with home-based instruction online and paper packets? Do we attempt a “hybrid model” with the goal of keeping class sizes small with limited days? Do we wait for an “all clear” from a trusted public health official?
As school districts consider the future in a “new normal,” it benefits us to confront some hard truths about our students and their families. What we know from surveying parents is that many struggle to access vital survival services. There are significant gaps in access to medical care, which should send off red warning lights in the era of COVID-19. Families struggle to access behavioral health care, food and housing support. For some, access to transportation, Wi-Fi, running water and electricity are problematic.
Are all students and families struggling? Not yet. The current economic situation may mean the middle class becomes the new vulnerable class. We have no idea what’s facing us.
What we do know is that there is a model, called the community school, for public schools that could not only increase academic success but make each school a hub for community support. A community school is fully resourced with staff who can ensure students and parents have access to a school-based health center with medical care. In a pandemic, access to viral testing and treatment is not only prudent but should be considered part of emergency readiness.
Community schools provide students and their families health care, food banks, clothing banks, tutors, mentors and specialists who connect parents with job training and all vital services. They can be designed to incorporate early childhood development programs, link to community gardens and job readiness programs.
Schools themselves would not be responsible for providing these services. There are many models for partnerships with nonprofits and the private sector that can get the services to the people who need them, using schools as a community hub. This would allow nurses, social workers, behavioral health providers and other specialists to provide these services, while teachers are free to teach.
There are decades of research on the effectiveness of community schools that all of us committed to public education would benefit greatly from reviewing. With community schools, we have a tested model that can significantly increase academic achievement and overall well-being. The model can support families and allow teachers to focus on what they do best — teach.
The question today, amid unprecedented crises, should not be, when do we go back to school? It should be, what type of public education system should our students be guaranteed?
Bill Soules, Ph.D., is a New Mexico state senator and public educator. Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D., and Dominic Cappello are the co-authors of 100% Community: Ensuring 10 Vital Services for Surviving and Thriving, which can be downloaded free at AnnaAgeEight.org.