I teach in a high poverty school in Denver and I’m terrified of the long-term impact of the COVID-19 crisis on my students and their families. Many online remote learning resources have offered their services for free as a solution to lost school time, which is generous, but feels frustratingly short-sighted. The same students who have a home that is stable, routine, and well resourced enough to help them benefit from the remote learning programs are the same students who would have done well before the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, for my students in poverty, we are watching the opportunity gap widen dramatically in real time.
After getting the news that schools would close for at least three weeks, I sent my 1st-grade students home with backpacks full of books, math packets, pencils and apples. But there was a sense of foreboding as we said goodbye. Phone numbers change constantly for families in poverty and email is not commonly used. And while I’ve been sending YouTube videos of myself reading bedtime stories to my students’ families through text messages, I’m not naive about their realities. It’s not enough. And as the food and hospitality industries that employ most of my students’ families shutter their doors and lay off their lowest-level employees, my students’ parents will lose the only connection I have to them―their phone numbers. Without that link, those students will be lost.
The COVID-19 situation in Denver is evolving faster than teachers can express the needs of the communities we serve. Gov. Polis issued an executive order that suspends in-person learning in all public and private schools across the state from March 23rd to April 17th. My colleagues and I fear that an April 17th end date is unlikely. In preparation, Denver Public Schools is putting together a plan to move all students to remote learning beginning on April 7th. As details and logistics of remote learning plans are worked out, I urge DPS and all large metro school districts to consider our commitment as a district to equitable education opportunities for all children that eliminate barriers to success. Our most vulnerable students need their teachers now more than ever, but their basic needs must be met before they can truly access remote learning.
There, the priorities are clear.
The most important thing we can do right now as a district and as a society is to provide poverty support for families who already struggle with food and housing insecurity. Cell phone service interruption stays, rent assistance, eviction stays, Medicaid enrollments, and sustainable food support for all family members is what must come first to avoid losing track of the children who need their teachers the most. Then, we can address the mental health crises of children and their guardians if our students lose the healthy routines and connections that keep the effects of trauma at bay. This work is not new.
When the district developed its definition of the Whole Child with the community, everyone agreed that there were specific components that supported the goal of educating the whole child. They include growing and developing:
- Students who are socially and emotionally intelligent
- Students who practice a healthy lifestyle
- Students who are supported by caring adults
- Students who are engaged in learning
- Students who feel physically and emotionally safe in school
- Students who are challenged to perform at their highest level
Every day, the teachers at my school give hugs, patch playground scrapes, lend coats, share food, defuse crises, and check in on the families of our students. Focusing our efforts on supporting the whole child, especially now, will help us build a foundation to then meet their academic needs.
The academic needs are urgent. My students are future leaders with big dreams that will require an excellent education. And the impact of losing months of traditional instruction will be profound and long-lasting, particularly for our most vulnerable students. For that reason, we must ensure that the human needs of every child are met. The actions we choose to take now will show our true values as a district, city, and society.
Renée Nabors is a kindergarten and 1st grade teacher at KIPP Sunshine Peak Elementary, a bilingual public charter school serving students in ECE-1st grade in Southwest Denver. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Colorado Policy Fellow.