The COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis for U.S. public schools. Most schools had to close abruptly in the spring of 2020 and shift instruction and other school services from face-to-face to online. Thousands of U.S. schools stayed physically closed for a year or more, offering only online instruction during that time. For many students and families, the school closures and other COVID-19 consequences were and continue to be devastating. In some families, members became sick; some died. Parents and other adults lost jobs or were mandated to work in dangerous circumstances as essential workers. Families who had relied on school lunches as a guaranteed daily meal for their children found themselves in long lines at food pantries. Some students had to become caregivers for younger siblings while their parents went to work. Some students did not have computers or internet access to keep up with schoolwork. Despite moratoria in some states on evictions, some families were evicted and became homeless. For some students and families, school, regardless of quality, had been the most stable environment they had.
One truth about the pandemic was that students who were already the most vulnerable, whether because of poverty, racism, other forms of prejudice, English language barriers, special education needs, homelessness, and/or poor-quality schools, were those most negatively affected by COVID-19 and the school closures. That negative impact continues. For many students and families, the COVID-19 experience has been traumatic. Some of the most severely affected were homeless students—those either living on their own, temporarily with friends or relatives, in shelters or motels, or outdoors. These were the students who most needed their school districts to respond quickly to COVID-19 through organized and deliberate action. Some districts did so; others did not.
The school districts that responded quickly and deliberately did so across multiple domains. Operationally, they ensured that all students and teachers had access to digital devices and the internet, quickly distributing devices and hotspots to those who did not. Academically, they immediately began online instruction, providing training to teachers in distance learning approaches. In terms of students’ socioemotional and mental health needs, these districts ensured that students could maintain warm relationships with teachers and peers, even in an online learning environment, and provided online counseling to students experiencing depression and anxiety. For the most economically affected students, districts delivered food, diapers, school supplies, and other essentials to students’ current places of residence. Importantly, these districts communicated frequently with students and families, including those who did not speak English. These districts also partnered with community organizations to support students beyond the online school environment and sought the input of parents, other caregivers and family members, and community experts and leaders.
The purpose of this review is to summarize the literature on best practices in education in the COVID-19 environment, with particular reference to students experiencing homelessness. The material reviewed has been created by national agencies, state departments of education, teachers’ and superintendents’ organizations, policy organizations, and advocacy groups. The topics covered include:
- Curriculum, instruction, and assessment
- Socioemotional and mental health supports
- Student attendance and engagement
- Parents, caregivers, and families
- Community and community organizations
COVID-19 requires operational supports for out-of-school distance learning and, when students return to school, for in-school learning. It has also required new systems and protocols and, in some cases, additional funding or staffing. Effective school districts:
- Seek extra funds and additional resources to support distance learning, and the additional supports students need when they return to school.
- Ensure that all educators and students have access to a digital device and to the internet, such as by distributing Chromebooks and hotspots to students lacking full digital access.
- Prioritize the comprehensive needs of students who are the most vulnerable, including low-income students, English learners, students with disabilities, homeless students, and young children.
- Prioritize in-school learning for students most at risk for learning loss, such as low-income students, English learners, students with disabilities, homeless students, and young children.
- Prepare the school environment for safe in-person learning, such as by reducing class sizes, using social distancing, frequently cleaning and sanitizing, providing handwashing facilities, providing face masks and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), implementing staggered schedules, grouping students in “pods,” creating outdoor classrooms and emphasizing outdoor learning, and upgrading ventilation systems.
- Make special provisions for medically vulnerable students.
- Arrange for safe modes of transportation.
- Choose a single digital learning platform that allows for video communication, small group communication, and posting documents and student work.
- Make provisions to ensure data privacy.
- Create communication protocols for weekly communication with all staff, students, and families.
- Make provisions for safely providing food and healthy meals both at school and at students’ place of residence.
- Conduct contingency planning for multiple pandemic scenarios, including identifying emergency funding.
- Provide childcare for teachers and families.
- Ensure that all schools have adequate nursing staff.
- Consider increasing learning time when students return to school by offering extended day, vacation, and summer programming.
- Establish screening, testing, and quarantine procedures for when schools are open.
- Establish crisis response teams to respond to trauma-related issues experienced by students, families, or staff.
- Create a protocol for identifying students who are newly homeless due to COVID-19.
- Ensure up-to-date contact information for students experiencing homelessness by reaching out to parents via phone, text, or email.
- Reach out to12th grade homeless students to help with post-secondary planning and to ensure they are on track to graduate.
- Identify community spaces where students can safely do schoolwork if they are homeless or do not have appropriate space at home.
- Reallocate and repurpose Title 1 and McKinney-Vento funds to meet urgent student needs.
- Ensure that McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons have adequate resources to continue to identify and serve students experiencing homelessness.
Curriculum, instruction, and assessment
COVID-19 requires adjustments in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, particularly the shift from face-to-face to distance teaching and learning. Given the disruptive and distressing effect of COVID-19 on students and families, it is more important than ever that instruction address the needs of “the whole child,” and not narrowly focus on academics. Effective districts:
- Create a vision and goal statement specifically for distance learning.
- Create new or revised online curricula that integrate academic and socioemotional learning.
- Provide educators with professional development in online and distance learning.
- Create time for teachers to plan their instruction and communicate with colleagues.
- Create a community of learners, even in the online environment.
- Send home learning packets and materials.
- Collect information and assess students to inform instruction.
- Provide distance instruction that is a balance of synchronous online learning, asynchronous online learning, and non-digital “off-line” learning.
- Ensure that the amount of digital learning per day is age-appropriate, with shorter periods online for younger students.
- Plan summer and vacation learning activities to prevent learning loss.
- Document and publicize effective teaching strategies.
- Prioritize specific standards and provide standards-based instruction.
- Follow Individual Education Plans (IEPs).
- Create consistent schedules and structures.
- Provide instruction that:
- Is personalized, student-centered, and meaningful.
- Is inquiry- and problem-based, with authentic real-world learning tasks.
- Includes discussion, critical thinking, and reflection.
- Combines whole class and small group activities.
- Includes collaborative project work.
- Is culturally appropriate, relevant, and responsive.
- Includes digital and non-digital learning activities.
- Addresses essential questions.
- Is multimodal and interdisciplinary.
- Integrates art, music, and physical education.
- Incorporates Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to ensure equitable access.
- Is matched to students’ interests, academic levels, and developmental levels.
- Is flexible and responsive to students’ home and family circumstances.
- Ensure interventions and extra academic support for students falling behind, and acceleration activities for students working above grade level.
- Integrate general education, special education, and English learner students.
- Provide non-graded enrichment activities.
- Create alternative grading systems, either Pass/Incomplete or A, B, C, Incomplete, with students given the opportunity to complete uncompleted work.
- Allow students to redo work.
- Create alternatives to tests, such as video capstone projects.
- Make sure that teachers know English learners’ level of English proficiency.
- Give English learners material in their own language and opportunities to use their own language.
- Implement diagnostic assessments when students return to school.
- Make provisions for providing intensive interventions and support to students who have fallen behind due to COVID-19, including homeless students who have fallen behind due to inconsistent attendance.
- Provide remote college and financial aid counseling to high school students.
- Suspend or cancel high-stakes standardized tests.
Socioemotional and mental health supports
All students need socioemotional and mental health supports, but some students are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In addition, the COVID-19 experience has been traumatic for many students, particularly those experiencing homelessness. Effective districts:
- Connect with mental health professionals in the community.
- Hire more mental health professionals if needed.
- Implement universal socioemotional and mental health screening.
- Ensure that every student has a warm personal relationship with at least one adult at school, even in the online environment.
- Provide training to all staff in how to identify, teach, and support students in crisis and suffering from trauma, including students experiencing homelessness.
- Provide extra supports for students with disabilities, English learners, students in foster care, and homeless students.
- Provide weekly non-academic “check-ins” with every student.
- Build warm, positive relationships that buffer stress.
- Provide consistency and structure.
- Articulate clear expectations and norms.
- Emphasize, facilitate, and support student-student and student-teacher relationships.
- Acknowledge each student’s current circumstances.
- Provide opportunities for student voice and academic choices.
- Strive to give students a sense of safety and belonging.
- Focus on executive functioning, mindset, learning skills, and habits of successful learners.
- Ensure that all teachers are aware of how COVID-related stress and trauma can affect intellectual and socioemotional functioning.
- Provide activities that emphasize resilience and regulation of stress, emotions, actions, and behaviors.
- Embrace English learners and students with disabilities as assets.
- Ensure that all staff are aware of the increased potential for abuse and are familiar with the warning signs of abuse.
- Provide stipends to homeless students and families to cover additional COVID-related expenses.
- Develop procedures for homeless families to enroll their children in school, even when schools and district offices are physically closed or when families do not have internet access.
Teachers, other educators, and staff bear tremendous responsibility for student learning and well-being. They need training in distance learning, and they need support to deal with the stress of COVID-19. Effective districts:
- Ensure that teachers are supported with professional development in online and distance learning.
- Ensure that teachers have appropriate devices, internet access, and access to ongoing tech support.
- Provide opportunities for stress reduction, such as mindfulness training and other forms of self-care.
- Emphasize staff cohesion and relationships.
- Provide enough planning and collaboration time.
- Provide regular check-ins between teachers and their supervisors.
- Develop strategies for retaining highly credentialed teachers at risk of leaving the profession due to COVID-19.
- Include teachers and staff in all major decisions.
- Provide childcare for educators and staff with children.
- Acknowledge staff responsibilities and challenges and celebrate accomplishments.
- Make mental health services available to staff.
- Solicit feedback from staff.
- Provide training to all school staff about the unique needs of homeless students and the rights of homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Attendance and student engagement
Distance learning provides many challenges to “taking attendance” and having students participate in and feel engaged in online learning activities. With the “video-off” option, teachers have little idea of whether students are engaged in a learning activity or not. Nevertheless, some students do not want to be on video for privacy reasons. Effective districts:
- Keep careful records of whether students are logging on to online activities, turning in schoolwork, and showing other signs of school engagement.
- Encourage students to use “video-on” but do not require it.
- Reach out to students and parents of students who are not logging on, not turning in schoolwork, or who otherwise seem disengaged.
- Ensure that instruction is relevant, active, and engaging.
- Provide before and after-school extracurricular activities, in-person and online, to increase engagement.
- Eliminate punitive policies for absences and tardiness.
- Identify and reach out to students at risk of dropping out of school.
Parents, caregivers, and families
Distance learning is particularly challenging for parents, caregivers, and other family members. Families may be under stress for multiple reasons, such as lost income or illness, and may have difficulty or not be able to supervise their students’ learning. Effective districts:
- Ensure that parents have a point of contact.
- Gather information about family resources and needs, while also respecting family privacy.
- Determine if families lack basic supplies such as food, school supplies, clothing, hygiene and cleaning supplies, and diapers.
- Connect families with social service agencies and community organizations.
- Create multimodal communication protocols that use mail, text, email, websites, social media, and phone to communicate regularly with families, particularly those most isolated.
- Create a hotline for parents.
- Ensure that written and oral materials are provided in multiple languages and that translators are available.
- Communicate to parents how students can get extra help.
- Provide families with basic training in digital communication and ensure that parents know how to access student work, grades, and attendance records.
- Make tech support available to families.
- Connect parents to other parents and create parent communities.
- Seek parent input and feedback through conversations, surveys, and focus groups.
- Invite parents to join advisory groups and task forces.
- Provide childcare for parents who are essential workers and cannot supervise their children at home.
- Communicate with all students and families about the rights and resources for homeless students under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
Community and community organizations
Community members, nonprofit organizations, social service agencies, and out-of-school providers can be valuable partners in supporting students and families during the COVID-19 crisis. Successful districts:
- Attend to community diversity to ensure equity.
- Identify community experts in mental health, trauma-informed instruction, infectious diseases, distance learning, online instruction, and other relevant topics.
- Connect with community agencies that can provide families with food, mental health supports, and other social services.
- Recruit tutors from the community who can work with students struggling academically.
- Reach out to workplaces that can establish online or socially distant internships for older students.
- Partner with out-of-school-time (OST) providers to ensure that students have enrichment and recreational activities in addition to academic activities.
- Recruit community members to serve on task forces or advisory groups.
Though COVID-19 restrictions are beginning to lift and most U.S. children are now attending school in-person, the negative effects of COVID-19 will continue to unfold for the years to come. Some students may never recover academically and socioemotionally, particularly if districts take a business-as-usual approach to post-COVID education. However, if any good is to come from this crisis, it will because school districts reviewed all of their systems of student learning, development, and engagement, whether by ensuring that all students and families have computers, internet access, and other digital devices; creating healthy and effective operational protocols, including by emphasizing outdoor learning; ensuring that teachers are able to teach through both online and in-person modalities; ensuring that teachers feel supported, including through professional learning communities of practice; by revising curricula to achieve maximum emphasis on critical independent thinking, inquiry, and authentic learning; having systems to track attendance and respond to chronic absences; having systems of family support and communication; collaborating with community agencies to serve students and their families; by having resources for supporting students’ socioemotional well-being, including resources to respond to anxiety, depression, and trauma; and by attending to the unique needs of English learners, students with disabilities, students in crisis, and students experiencing homelessness. As the great humanist and scientist Albert Einstein said, “In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” Let us hope that the field of education takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the COVID-19 crisis.
Emily Dexter, Ed.D., (email@example.com) was a member of the Cambridge, Massachusetts, School Committee (School Board) from 2016-2020.
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