How Learning Happens in a COVID-19 World

By Rachel Stephens-Murphy, Reprinted from America’s Promise Alliance

In mid-March, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. In the weeks that followed, students’ in-school and out-of-school learning environments were dramatically upended, with the vast majority of students participating in some form of online learning at the time. Since that rapid shift, educators, school administrators, out-of-school time (OST) leaders, and youth-focused decision-makers have continued to grapple with not only how to keep young people safe, but how to continue supporting their social, emotional, and cognitive learning during a pandemic. So, what does learning look like in a COVID-19 world?

To learn more about how community organizations across the country responded to the realities of education during the initial stages of the pandemic—and what their efforts to support students’ learning looked like—we used a qualitative analysis software to analyze our communications1 with organizations from five communities in our How Learning Happens community cohort: San Francisco, CA; Boston, MA; Rochester, NY; Spartanburg, SC; and Nashville, TN.

In analyzing the experiences of these communities, we sought to answer three pressing questions:

1. Amidst the current COVID-19 crisis, what barriers and tensions are community organizations wrestling with?

2. What are communities prioritizing in the area of young people’s social, emotional and cognitive development during this time?

3. What are concrete examples of how communities are meeting students’ social, emotional, and cognitive needs in response to COVID-19?

Below is a summary of what we found, along with excerpts from our conversations with these five communities. These lessons learned during the initial stages of the pandemic remain instructive as schools, OST providers, and other youth-supporting organizations consider priorities for approaching the 2020-2021 school year.

Young people and their families are in need of emotional support.

COVID-19 has affected young people and the caring adults in their lives in ways that extend far beyond school disruptions and learning loss. At the onset of the pandemic, school and community leaders quickly recognized that many young people and their caregivers had limited access to social, emotional, academic, technology, and financial resources, leading to feelings of fear, frustration, isolation, and increased mental load that needed to be addressed before meaningful learning could occur. During a community convening earlier this year, one parent leader from San Francisco, CA shared: “It’s really hard to keep up working full time from home while keeping the kids engaged and/or occupied…[there are] so many emotions going on for all of us and it’s very trying and frustrating when it ends in tears.”

Initially, the focus of these community organizations was addressing students’ basic needs—food, stable housing, internet access—but the conversation soon shifted to the need to address trauma and emotional distress. During a phone call with leaders from Nashville, TN, one staff member noted: “Because of the tornados [in Nashville], our agenda was already re-shifting, but tornado plus COVID-19 one week apart has made it feel extra apocalyptical here. Trauma-informed care will be really necessary.”

Funding cuts have severely impacted the youth-supporting field.

Further contributing to the stress of the moment is the very real economic impacts on the youth-serving field. Since the onset of the pandemic, sharp revenue declines in K-12 school districts and among community organizations have resulted in significant staff layoffs and furloughs, with no real end in sight. Consequently, fewer trained adults were available to help youth and families navigate remote learning and the disconnect from resources. This also affected critical training and implementation time needed for a smooth transition into the next school year.

As one leader from Spartanburg, SC shared: “Layoffs happening in OST means fewer people who would participate [in trainings and convenings]. I wasn’t sure how many providers would have bandwidth to participate.” For many, the lack of job security and the instability of the moment have made it difficult to prioritize preparation and have underscored the need for further support. One leader from Rochester, NY shared: “Adults are struggling right now. Training for self-care is the main thing that’s being requested. Before they can begin to think about how to support young people, adults need to take care of their own well-being.”

Youth-supporting organizations are leading the work to support students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

Despite the challenges of the moment, community organizations have made it a priority to emphasize that the upcoming school year cannot be “business as usual.” Instead, schools and youth-supporting organizations are working together to prioritize a whole-child approach to reopening–whether virtual, in person, or hybrid–by incorporating the following concrete, use-right-now strategies:

  • Addressing trauma and wellbeing. Our analysis found that as communities worked to re-envision teaching and learning strategies for the summer and fall, they often emphasized the need to incorporate a trauma-informed, healing-centered approach. Reframing efforts using this lens has been a central focus of many leaders who remain committed to academic progress, with the recognition that learning is best facilitated when adults have forged positive relationships with young people where the young person’s life outside of school is understood. This approach is influencing everything from marketing strategies to educator training priorities. As one leader from Spartanburg, SC noted during a virtual community conversation: “We’re all experiencing this kind of collective trauma right now. And whenever we are able to come back together, our out-of-school time providers are going to really need to be able to incorporate those kinds of practices into their programming, which aligns so well with social emotional learning.”
  • Building authentic connections with youth. Many, including the media, have noted the negative effects of social isolation on youth. Several community organizations have made adjustments to their pre-pandemic workflows to create opportunities to hear directly from and build relationships with young people in meaningful ways. To better understand what young people were thinking and feeling, community leaders in Spartanburg, SC met virtually with youth early on to provide a safe space to talk. One leader noted: “[Our] first conversation was just listening to young people vent their frustrations, vent their pain. One of our leaders, a high school senior said: ‘I feel like I’m done, I achieved something, I went to school for 12 years and it was for nothing. My sole goal was to walk across that stage and give my mother the diploma.’ It really hit home that there’s an emotional toll.”
  • Supporting the emotional wellbeing of adults. Many community leaders expressed the desire to empower youth-serving adults and provide support through check-ins focused on their emotional wellbeing. The goal is to make their meetings as practical as possible and focused on tools and resources that adults could use for their own emotional wellbeing and professional development, along with youth engagement tips. The question is, according to one leader from Boston, MA: “How do we center on educators’ wellbeing, which has a direct impact on students?”

The priorities described above emerged during a time in which many schools and youth-supporting organizations were focused on managing the immediate needs of staff and young people. However, the work that occurred at the beginning of the pandemic remains a priority, as leaders across the country continue to manage the personal and academic toll the pandemic is taking on young people, as well as the impacts on the caring adults in their lives. Ultimately, the resounding message from leaders in our community cohort is that amidst the chaos and difficulty brought about by the pandemic, it is particularly urgent in this moment to focus on young people’s social and emotional needs, in order to foster an environment in which young people are safe, learning, and thriving.

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