To Help Students Recover from the Pandemic, We Must Support Families

Opinion

Katrice Fuller-Whitaker is the Chief of Safety and Family Engagement at Monument Academy Public Charter School, a Ward 6 public school. She is a DC resident and the mother of five boys. Courtesy: K. Fuller-Whitaker

We have heard a lot about what students need to recover from more than a year of disruption to school and their lives from COVID-19. Learning loss, a lack of social emotional engagement, and unmet mental health needs are front and center in this discussion. And rightly so.

However, we also need to reflect on the broader context in which we attempt to address these issues. That broader context starts with families.

Based on my work in family engagement at Monument Public Charter School and as a mother of 5 boys, I know that in order to help students really recover and flourish, we need to support families –comprehensively.  

Communities and families are suffering. There is no doubt about it. People have experienced so much loss and grief during the pandemic.  I myself have lost 7 family members from COVID-19. That kind of personal loss takes a big toll.

People are hurting economically. Between lost jobs, lost income and housing instability, the economic anxiety many communities have felt for decades has turned into outright economic panic during the pandemic. Street violence, domestic violence, and other crime is up in communities across the District –all of it creates more trauma and injury to students, families and communities.

In this context, schools can and must be centers of care and recovery. I see that potential and power in my own school, its unique residential model providing students literal shelter from the storm for most of the week. Our students are thriving in this environment.

But we cannot simply turn all of our public schools into boarding public schools. Instead, we need to extend the reach of the school into the home. That means providing wraparound services and programs for entire families.

Physical and mental health care, job training and counseling, high-quality and affordable childcare, recreation and cultural enrichment opportunities all can be school-based and community supporting to help families and neighborhoods flourish. Our schools can lead our recovery, but we need to engage with communities to identify and scale up the solutions and services that they need, conduct real needs assessments for each of our diverse communities.

Public schools in the District are funded based on the number of students who attend, with a special “weight” applied for students who are considered “at-risk” of academic failure due to poverty. In the wake of the pandemic, we need to rethink the definition of an “at-risk” student.

In many ways, the pandemic showed us we are all at-risk. We have seen the tenuous nature of our own stability through COVID’s deadly effects. We need to expand the definition of “at-risk” in our school funding beyond the handful of limited economic and social indicators currently used. We should include adult learners, undocumented students, families facing temporary or intermittment hardship and more in the definition so that schools have the resources to equitably and effectively support them.

But it isn’t just our school funding model that needs to expand. We must also support the growth of diverse models of schools and the ability of families to access these public school options. Student needs are not all the same, so a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling will never be the answer. Parents need to be able to find the kind of school that meets their students’ unique needs.

But schools with specialized programming are not evenly distributed. There are 52 schools west of the Anacostia River with either dual language, International Baccalaureate, arts integration, or Montessori programming. East of the Anacostia River there are just 7 total schools with those programs.

At the same time, educators need the flexibility and financial means to innovate effectively in the service of their students. We are fortunate to have a broad range of public school options in the District, but there is still so much unmet demand for high-quality schools with specialized programming and models of instruction, our leaders should continue to find new ways to grow those schools that our families are flocking to and bring additional innovative schools to our communities.

None of this is free, obviously. But despite the challenges to our economy during the pandemic, we are better off as a city than many others. We are also the beneficiaries of unprecedented federal investment in the form of the American Recovery Plan and prior stimulus spending.

That opportunity cannot go to waste. We need to develop a comprehensive and thoughtful approach to serving families that respects their unique needs and aspirations.

We’ll need to sustain the effort well past the expiration of those federal funds, but while those funds are available we can get this work off to a real and impactful start. That’s what our families need and that’s what our families deserve.

Katrice Fuller-Whitaker is the Chief of Safety and Family Engagement at Monument Academy Public Charter School, a Ward 6 public school. She is a DC resident and the mother of five boys.