The epidemic behind the mask: COVID-related education inequities

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FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images
Instructor Chablis Torres (C) reads to children in a pre-school class, wearing masks and at desks spaced apart as per coronavirus guidelines during summer school sessions in Monterey Park, California on July 9, 2020. 

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recently announced strategies for reopening schools during the ongoing pandemic. Although hand-washing, physical distancing, mask-wearing and in-person schooling are important, these strategies alone will not ensure that children are healthy and learning. We also must consider their COVID-19-related experiences, particularly for children in low-resourced communities where infection and death rates have been higher, vaccination rates lower and inequities rampant. 

In order to tackle such complexities in children’s experiences, we simply cannot rely on teachers and schools to “go it alone.” Instead, we must break out of our silos and harness community-wide resources that will address the needs of the “whole child,” which include physical and mental health — and, for the children’s sake, we must act now.

While the CDC’s strategies acknowledge students’ mental health needs, mitigation of this problem is assumed to be addressed solely by returning to school. Such a response strategy requires school-based access to mental health services, which President Biden himself has acknowledged as lacking. Moreover, a recent report from Child Trends indicates only 15 percent of states have adequate plans to address students’ socio-emotional needs as a result of their COVID-19-related experiences. Knowing this, how will schools be sufficiently prepared to address the pandemic-driven socio-emotional and mental health needs of children when they return? Furthermore, how will COVID-related trauma be addressed without further burdening already overburdened teachers?

As experts in childhood trauma who work in the fields of child maltreatment prevention and education within low-resourced communities, we have seen the effects of COVID-driven adversity firsthand: Job loss resulting in housing insecurity, especially as the threat of eviction loomed large throughout the fall. A mother in the ICU with COVID-19 while her husband, with severe coronavirus symptoms, stayed home to care for the children and frantically tried to provide for his family. Sadly, the traumatic effects of the global pandemic have brought to light many such inequities that are pervasive across the country.

Further, physical distancing has led to social isolation, contributing to feelings of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experienced by many children and adolescents. As an example, Clark County, Nev., reported a twofold increase in suicides, reminding us of the long reach of COVID-19 being felt by students across this country. When school was open, educators had in-person, formal and informal contact with students. However, schooling via video conference provides limited opportunities to gauge the effects of COVID-19 on students’ lives. The complexity of these coronavirus-driven experiences, therefore, highlights the need for a broader community approach to prevention and containing the epidemic behind the mask.

President Biden’s Plan for Educators, Students and our Future includes a focus on mental health and well-being for students and educators, and the establishment of community schools. We commend this approach because it shares responsibility for students across teachers, counselors, social workers, nurses and community organizations. It also allows teachers to do what they do best — teach. However, such a Herculean effort will take time, which our schools, communities and, most importantly, children do not have. Until Congress passes a comprehensive education plan, we recommend that more attainable efforts be commenced to address the epidemic of inequity.

Specifically, COVID-relief funding should include grants to states for local communities to engage in responsive and preventive strategies to address COVID- and poverty-driven needs while laying the foundation for President Biden’s plan. Funding should be put toward infrastructure development, including interagency coalition- building, to undertake local needs assessment and resource mapping. Our proposal sets the path for the Biden plan to hit the ground running, but it also facilitates an interagency focus on meeting the current COVID-driven needs within low-resourced communities as they await a more permanent approach. If policymakers choose not to implement this effort, schools will be forced to “build the plane as they fly,” which inevitably will lead to failure.

We recognize that cost is a concern. However, this is an investment in the “economics of human potential,” which focuses on early educational success as the foundation of a contributing workforce. We believe the proposed community grants should require data as the basis of determining areas of greatest need, resource allocation and policy effectiveness (return on investment). This is particularly important in evaluating the extent to which we decrease inequities and address the widening achievement gap. 

While the cost of these initiatives may be high, the cost of perpetuating the epidemic of inequities by ignoring the holistic needs of our students indeed will be much higher.

Christy Tirrell-Corbin, Ph.D., is executive director of the Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention at the University of Maryland.

Carlomagno Panlilio, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and faculty member of the Child Maltreatment Solutions Network at Penn State University.

J. Bart Klika, Ph.D., is chief research officer with Prevent Child Abuse America.

Tags Child welfare children's mental health Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education Joe Biden Rochelle Walensky Social distancing

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