Focus on outreach, health and data can help schools limit COVID-19 impacts

Education leaders and researchers alike have identified troubling projected outcomes from the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread school closures: the large number of children who may “fall through the cracks” without their usual support systems and those students whose educational deficits may grow.

Schools, however, can limit these adverse impacts on students’ well-being and academic progress by emphasizing family connections, promoting physical and behavioral health, and leveraging existing data to target and tailor supports. That message was conveyed by speakers across the country at an April 14 webinar hosted by Attendance Works, the Healthy Schools Campaign and the Institute for Educational Leadership. (A video recording is available).

Meaningful connections and a focus on health

During her presentation (page 9), Attendance Works Executive Director Hedy Chang unveiled the organization’s four-phase framework for schools’ response to COVID-19. As California districts roll out their distance learning programs, the framework calls for an emphasis on engagement and school connectedness for students and families; monitoring attendance and participation in remote learning activities; and using data on lack of participation for real-time problem-solving.

Targeted and quality outreach toward students and families, particularly those facing economic, health and academic hardships, will lead to more engagement in the shift to distance learning. “You want to make sure your families feel supported, not bothered, in a time of crisis,” Chang said.

Presenters from the public school systems in New York City and Baltimore reinforced the notion that the quality of relationships forged prior to the COVID-19 pandemic will strongly correlate with the success of current engagement efforts.

And while much of the focus is on providing students with virtual learning opportunities, officials in districts such as Long Beach Unified continue to prioritize the physical and mental well-being of students and their families. “These needs must be satisfied before we can deal with students’ academic needs,” said Erin Simon, director of Student Support Services for Long Beach USD.

She said the district is using school nurses to reach out to families with a known history of health and attendance challenges, as well as using family resource centers and a number of other sites to provide meals and resources. The focus on well-being also extends to district staff, particularly those on the frontline helping students through difficult times. “Staff cannot pour from an empty cup,” Simon said.

Alex Mays, senior national program director for the Healthy Schools Campaign, concluded that the most challenging question is how schools, as integral parts of the community, can continue to provide critical supports during physical closures and stay-at-home orders. Where technologically feasible, Mays said, telehealth options are gaining traction. California has taken a number of significant actions to remove policy barriers to telehealth during the pandemic, including as it pertains to mental health counseling.

Using existing data and tracking distance learning

Just as local educational agency trustees and administrators use chronic absence data to signal barriers to daily attendance in a physical school setting, Attendance Works has pivoted to recommend that schools use that existing data to inform distance learning planning and monitoring. Chang said officials can draw upon chronic absence data to triage and tailor their specific outreach to students.

“We know if they were chronically absent before, it reflects existing equity gaps that mean they’re particularly vulnerable,” Chang said. “And it will be the truth as we start to move into more virtual and remote learning opportunities, we’re going to have to start thinking about ‘what’s the equivalent of chronic absence’ so we can identify the growing number of students who are challenged economically as a result of this health crisis.”

Chang added that school and district officials should make an extra effort to track the participation and engagement of African American and Latino students, who are traditionally more at risk to be chronically absent. Thus far, she said that trend has shown to be true in early data monitoring returns on distance learning.

Further, Chang stated that schools should document distance learning challenges and interventions to inform both their current and future support when school does return. For example, knowing which students did not participate often via distance learning will dictate that they likely need more supports in the fall.