Tanzina Vega: It's been six months since the coronavirus pandemic caused school systems across the country to shut their doors and scramble to adapt to remote learning. Though the challenges posed by COVID-19 remain as acute as ever, we're now getting a better sense of how public high schools fared in the transition to this new reality.
In a report released today, the UCLA Institute for Democracy Education and Access found that 92% of schools had to provide meals to students during the pandemic, 93% supply technology like tablets and laptops, and 43% provided support for students whose loved ones passed away.
For more on the survey's findings and what they say about our education system, I'm bringing in John Rogers, one of the report's authors, and he's also a professor of education at UCLA and faculty director at the University Center X. John, welcome to the show.
John Rogers: Thank you, Tanzina. I'm very happy to be here.
Tanzina: You surveyed hundreds of high school principals, and that some of those results were pretty stunning. How is it that principals were responding to providing meals, providing technology, providing emotional support? Was that coming off from them?
John: It came from them, and then their staff as well. I think one of the things that we see is that as the pandemic emerged, schools responded in very proactive ways to try to meet the extraordinary needs that were playing out. Schools, as you suggested, provided meals. They provided mental health counseling. They connected students to health care. They were the cornerstone of their communities, sustaining their communities through a very difficult time.
Tanzina: One of the things that's interesting, and we can't lose sight of this, is that students often, low-income students in particular, are also provided meals at school. John, has that become more of an acute need during the pandemic?
John: Absolutely. Many of the principals talked about emerging hunger that was playing out not just for the students but the students' families. A number of principals reported that they not only were providing meals to their students but to their students' siblings and other members of their students' families. They were doing this in very complicated ways because students could no longer receive the meals in the school cafeteria. Schools sometimes provided them in locations in the community, sometimes even sending the meals out directly to the students' homes.
Tanzina: One of the other things that's been exacerbated by this pandemic across the country is the access to the technology that's needed for remote learning, which was interesting that you found that a lot of principals were actually helping with that as well. Remote learning has really exacerbated that inequality, John, is that right?
John: It certainly has. We've had a digital divide for some time but during remote learning, we saw that high-poverty schools were much less ready to jump in and enable all of their students to participate on the first day. That was not just because many students lacked either the devices or the connectivity, it was also because some teachers and other key staff at schools didn't have those either devices or connectivity on the first day, and so high-poverty schools were far less likely than schools in more affluent communities to be ready early on.
Then even after schools ramped up, it was the case that high-poverty schools were more likely to have many students who lacked either a laptop or a tablet or some sort of connectivity that allowed them to participate fully in the remote learning environment.
Tanzina: Some of the principals that you spoke to that were part of the study had to really come up with some creative solutions. Let's listen to how one principal responded to what was happening.
Dr. Cynthia Gonzalez: My name is Dr. Cynthia Gonzalez. I'm a high school principal in South Central Los Angeles. One of the innovative things we did was to buy Facebook ads to push out to our community. Often our families don't have working phone numbers or continuously moving. This was one way to reach them and to make sure that they stayed in communication with us to get updates about student information and community resources.
Tanzina: John, I would never have assumed that Facebook ad could be used that effectively. What were the other ways that principals were making use of some creative solutions?
John: Principals tried to reach out to students in a variety of different ways. Some were fairly traditional phone calls, emails, text messages. Also half of our principals reported that they did home visits; they or their staff did home visits in order to connect with students who otherwise were not participating fully. I should note that there was a real divide in this, that again, students in high-poverty schools were far more likely to either not be participating regularly, or to be out of contact entirely.
This was because students in high-poverty schools were far more likely to be experiencing a set of challenges that were created by the pandemic. Challenges that related to economic insecurity, challenges that called for young people in high-poverty schools to be essential workers themselves, or to care for siblings who were not being supervised because they themselves were out of school. We saw that those principals in high-poverty schools were far more likely to have to take these steps to connect with students.
Tanzina: John, what about the emotional support that principals were providing for students who like that, who may have been stressed because of the exacerbated issues, because of the pandemic, because they may have lost someone. Tell us a little bit about that role.
John: Many principals spoke to us about the trauma that was unfolding in their schools as students were experiencing death in their families, death in the broader community, and/or sickness that was playing out. Many schools provided mental health support to their students. They tried to create a sense of community and support. Of course, this was particularly challenging in an environment where they couldn't connect with the students through traditional means, and they had to do this virtually. Fostering that sense of support in the community through Zoom or other virtual means was a challenge, but schools tried their best to meet that need.
Tanzina: There's so much there that educators are trying to make up for in this very difficult time. We're going to have to leave it there. John Rogers is a professor of education at UCLA and the faculty director at the University Center X. John, thanks for coming on The Takeaway.
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