There’s no question that school today in January of 2021 is much different than it was one year ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost all corners of our lives, with no exception to those in the education space. As school districts have moved from an initial ‘react’ to ‘adapt’ mode, there are trends and shifts in thinking that have emerged and could have lasting impact. We look at three of those trends in this blog post.
Greater Focus on Mental Health
The pandemic has caused a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety for everyone, including our school-aged population. It became pretty clear early on that a key part of schools adapting to the pandemic was not only changes to the way curriculum was delivered, but also the mental health and well being of the students. It’s no secret that mental health services are typically underfunded in schools. According to a childtrends.org article, more than half of youth across the country receiving mental health treatment receive it through their schools. However, the reality is that fewer than half of all schools report offering mental health treatment services, and the National Association of School Psychologists notes a shortage of qualified professionals. This is not stopping schools from finding a way to help their students during this time. According to a marketplace.org article, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, a hotline was set up to provide telehealth services to their students. In Minneapolis, even with schools closed, they made plans to open school buildings to accommodate mental health appointments with counselors. And in Harrisonburg, VA, they have set up virtual relaxation rooms where students can watch videos and find tips for dealing with mental health.
Some of the burden is falling on the educators in districts where budgets are limited. In the same childtrends.org article, they note that there’s been an increase in school staff training about trauma and mental health and how to connect students to mental health services. There are also new programs and guidance from a variety of national outlets, including:
Access to Technology is Increasing
According to a Forbes article, a recent study from the Alliance for Excellent Education found that nationwide, 16.9 million students do not have home internet or a computer. Students of color, students from families with low incomes, and students in rural locations are far likelier than their peers to lack these essential resources. This an alarming number when so much of the country’s schools are depending on remote and hybrid models. However, we have seen some states rise to the occasion to help close the gap in their communities. Using a combination of public and private funds and initiatives, the technology gaps are being addressed.
In Connecticut, every student in grades K-12 is guaranteed a laptop and internet access. Their program, called the Everybody Learns Initiative, was funded by multiple sources. They used the CARES Act to divert stimulus funding to school districts to pay for devices and negotiated with local ISPs for internet service. A statewide non-profit, called Partnership for Connecticut, purchased $24 million worth of laptops. This program, to date, has had a big impact in achieving its goal. To learn more, read here.
In Nevada, their COVID-19 task force formed an initiative called “Connecting Kids” in August when they were unable to confirm internet access of roughly a quarter of their public school student population. Connecting Kids was a coalition of business, schools districts, municipalities, non-profit groups, advocacy groups, food banks and other organizations that got together quickly to address this need so that kids could learn from home. According to this recent news article, every student participating in online learning due to COVID-19 restrictions has now confirmed at-home access to the internet and a computer.
More Outdoor Time
There have been a lot of photos circulating the internet lately of children bundled in warm coats learning outside in school. These photos aren’t from this past year but 100 years ago, when schools and public health officials were dealing with tuberculosis. So the idea of outdoor learning for public health safety is not a new concept. And it’s regaining steam in some states during this pandemic.
The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative was founded last year to support schools opening safely using outdoor spaces as strategic, cost-effective tools to increase capacity with physical distancing in place. According to an EdSurge article, they created an instructional manual for outdoor learning, detailing everything from campus site assessments and classroom infrastructure to case studies and curriculum. They formed working groups around 10 different topics and began soliciting volunteers to work with schools pro bono to come up with individualized outdoor learning plans given their space and budget constraints. At least 135 schools in 26 states have signed up to get help from this initiative.
There is also this concept called ‘Forest Schools’ which is gaining momentum in certain pockets of the country. According to this EdSource article, Forest schools have their roots in Scandinavia (pardon the pun) and are generally for pre-school aged students. They encourage physical activity and social interaction in nature. Being outdoors in nature is a natural coping mechanism to stress and is a way to lower transmission rates of the virus. There are over 50 forest schools in California, although most are not licensed by the state. Washington, however, became the first state to license outdoor preschools last year.
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