Op-Ed: Frankly, the kids are not all right

Ericka Santiago | January 6, 2021 | Opinion, Education
But attending to students’ emotional, psychological and even physical needs, such as hunger, can do wonders when it comes to improving their academic abilities
Ericka Santiago

I’ll come right out and say it: Sometimes, kids are safer at school than at home.

This is not a statement directed toward parents/guardians, but a reality check. Those with kids under their roofs are trying their best, but they can’t change the fact that they may not have access to the basic facilities (such as safe outdoor space) as a school. That was true pre-pandemic and is only exacerbated now.

College Achieve Public Schools, the charter school network where I am a social worker, invested in students’ mental health, expanding the role of its social workers to provide home visits and daily online wellness check-ins with students. “This is not the time to take our foot off the pedal,” the organization’s CEO Michael Piscal said. That’s why it was perplexing when the New Jersey state budget initially recommended slashing School Based Youth Service Programs. Thanks to the advocacy of students, families and school administrators, New Jersey came to its senses and did the right thing. They kept the funding.

What educators in underserved communities know well is that you can’t learn if you’re hungry, if you don’t have the necessary technology and if you’re sad. The lack of technology, instruction and mental health support is a large part of the reason why students in the highest-poverty school systems have been so disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The Center for Reinventing Public Education recently wrote about how virtual learning is impacting students who live in poverty.

College Achieve Public Schools believes that if you are able to provide basic necessities and key resources while keeping expectations high, students rise up and meet those standards.

Our schools are in some of the toughest neighborhoods in New Jersey and they have defied national trends by giving students a real shot at success despite tumultuous times. How? We provide every student with a computer and wi-fi, ensure five hours of daily live instruction, and deliver two meals a day (a vast majority of parents confirmed food insecurity via survey). We look at the needs of the whole child, including what’s often overlooked: students’ mental and emotional health.

My role now includes home visits, and when I see that a student is despondent, we get the OK from a guardian and go grab lunch at the beach. It never fails: Kids open up when they know someone is listening. We return from the little break a little bit lighter, I hope.

Each student has an assigned social worker, and we host daily online wellness check-ins. When needed, we recommend appropriate, cost-effective community resources. These activities provide students a chance to share how they’re doing (they all want to talk) and voice concerns in a private, respectful way.

It is noteworthy that nearly a quarter of our students are Hispanic and the majority are Black. Over 90% qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program (FRLP) and more than 20% have special needs. Mental health and social wellbeing are important for every student — every person really — but a growing body of research proves that students of color are less likely to have access to mental health services, and even when they do receive such care it is often of lower quality compared to their white peers. Further, Black students returned to school this fall having been disproportionately exposed to trauma from this past year.

Trauma related to racism combined with stress from the pandemic can be overwhelming for anyone; kids have it harder since it can be difficult for them to fully grasp the world’s happenings. While we may not have the power to alleviate current events, we can do our part to keep our students safe, and crucially, let them and their families know that we’re looking out for them. We follow up when a student misses class. We send a social worker over when a teacher flags that a student has been wearing the same pajamas for three consecutive days. We care. We show up.

Our social wellbeing efforts are working: 96% of students are attending school every day and internal assessments reveal that academic outcomes are improving during online instruction.

I urge school leaders to embrace the importance of tending to students’ mental health needs—particularly in these unprecedented schooldays. Education workers — teachers, administrators, social workers — choose this field because we care about kids. Let’s show the kids that we see them, hear them and will show up for them. They might not be all right now, but with our help they can be.

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