Over the past year, COVID-19 has directly impacted the lives of millions of families across the world. Our daily routines have transformed, and our new “normal” is quite a different way of living. Specifically, vulnerable populations such as the global majority, elderly, children, and people with (dis)abilities have experienced a heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 and often have been the hardest hit.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, many schools and higher education institutions have shut down due to health-related guidelines. Although most schools transitioned into a hybrid learning model in Fall 2020 –meaning a combination of in-person and online instruction — many students still have limited face-to-face interactions. In some cases, a significant number of students have been a no-show for virtual instruction. According to Bellwether Partners, since March 2020 “For many of the most marginalized students – those in foster care or experiencing homelessness, as well as students with (dis)abilities, English language learners and migrant students – [that] may have been the last day they experienced any formal education.” For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District reported that an estimated 6-10% of students from specific sub-groups did not log in to receive virtual instruction from March to May 2020. Similarly, Boston reported that 20% of their students did not receive virtual instruction in Spring 2020.
Today, more than 76 million students are enrolled in US schools requiring teachers and administrators to provide support students’ well-being to manage the trauma associated with COVID-19. In the US alone, more than 400,000 Americans have passed away from COVID-19, many of them being loved ones or caregivers to children and youth. Equally troubling, children remain the poorest group in America, with an estimated 1 in 6 living in poverty. Thus, the grief, distress, and instability students are experiencing calls for intentional and targeted supports.
With COVID-19, the reality is that for many students, particularly those in the deep end of the pool, learning is no longer a priority. In many cases, COVID-19 has exacerbated pre-existing barriers for students. For example, for students experiencing homelessness, schools were the basic providers for many of their needs. With massive school closures, many of them have been left with little to no support, ultimately resulting in their absence from school due to their inability to access computers and high-speed internet, let alone a safe place to learn. Some schools are trying to contact students in any way possible, including handing out flyers at laundromats.
As we continue to decipher how to best meet the needs of students in such trying times, one thing is clear: if we truly want to do well by our most vulnerable young people, teachers and administrators must deeply commit to a holistic approach that prioritizes the social and emotional needs of students–building loving and caring relationships over testing and assessment.
My fondest memories of my k-12 experience are not the important exams I took in 9thgrade, nor the formulas I memorized in geometry. In fact, hardly any of my most cherished moments have anything to do with academics; instead, they have everything to do with relationships.
Like many of youths, my life’s trajectory has been influenced by positive role models and mentors. Whether it is the teacher who took me on my first college tour or the one who made sure to ask me daily how things were going at home, what I remember most from my educational journey are the teachers and administrators that took me under their wings; those who saw the potential in me before I believed in myself. As Oprah reminds us, “A mentor is someone who allows you to see hope in yourself.”
The strong relationships I built with teachers and administrators made me feel loved and motivated and encouraged me to stay in school. Truthfully, I looked at my teachers as the parental figures that were physically absent in my life at the time. Without the empowering advice and trust I received from my mentors, my life outcomes would have shaped up differently.
Unfortunately, not every student is blessed to have a mentor or a caring adult in their lives. Approximately nine million at-risk youths have never had a mentor of any kind, which is particularly troubling considering what we know about how COVID-19 has impacted at-risk youths. The pandemic has presented teachers, administrators, and school officials with the challenge of their lifetimes: how to get this school thing “right.”
While I do not have the answer, I know that until we shift to a human-centered strategy to address the impact of COVID-19 on students, particularly those in the deep end of the pool, we are doing students a disservice. If we want students to be PRESENT, we must talk about and help them address what is important to them at this moment. I have had formal and informal conversations over the past several months with many young people, and I can tell you they are not concerned about learning the periodic table. They are worried about their parents who lost their jobs, about their friends who they have not heard from, and about their families’ stability.
This moment calls for community building; it calls for dedicated mentors. As we come to the end of National Mentoring Month, I encourage each of us to leverage our voices, resources, and tools to deepen our commitment to mentoring. As Daftne Sachnez, AYPF’s Youth Advisor shared “having a mentor through the COVID-19 pandemic assured me that help is always available as long as I ask.” Teachers and school administrators must ensure Daftne’s experience is the rule and not the exception.
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 Global Majority: Black, indigenous, and people of color.
 English language learners, students with (dis)abilities, students experiencing homelessness, and students in foster care in middle and high school.