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Helping Families and Communities: Building on Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

This foundational concept offers four lessons that educators everywhere might take from the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. addressing the needs of students and their families,
  2. rebuilding strong, trusting relationships with families and communities,
  3. paying more attention to educator wellness, and
  4. building on lessons learned!

During the pandemic, nearly all school districts tried to help families: arranging food deliveries, sending computers and tablets to students’ homes when they could afford it, and, improving alternatives—where they existed—to poor broadband infrastructure in some locales (CRPE, 2020; Truong, 2020). And almost no schools stopped delivering instruction. One national poll of parents reported 53% of students received only remote instruction, 28% only in-person instruction, and 19% a combination (Henderson et al., 2020).

Although everyone confronted the pandemic experience, it was an apocalypse for many communities and families. Low-income, Black, rural, and immigrant communities suffered the most: significantly higher rates of illness, hospitalization, and death; limited access to health care; increased housing and food insecurities; loss of work and income; lack of technology and resources; and lack of childcare alternatives (Committee for Economic Development, 2020; Godoy & Wood, 2020; Harvard School of Public Health News, 2021; National Academy of Education, 2020; Walker, 2020). The dire circumstances associated with a pandemic coupled with prevalent and systemic injustice had predictable educational consequences: lost opportunities to learn for some, stagnation for many, and continued learning at home for others (Dorn et al., 2020; Goldstein, 2020; Terada, 2020).

Pandemic Lesson #1: Addressing the Needs of Students and Their Families

The pandemic revealed more clearly the causes and effects of American inequality: the prevalent racism and xenophobia, the threats to basic survival needs, the inaccessibility of childcare, the systemic shortcomings of healthcare including for mental health, and the systemic problems of American justice (NAE, 2020; Laster Pirtle, 2020; Sahlberg, 2020). In this context of heightened awareness, educators became “first responders,” deciding when and where additional help (or resources) might be needed and then working to supply it (Berliner, 2020, para. 4; Buckeye Association of School Administrators, 2020).

Is this a reasonable way, moving forward and on a routine basis, to provide the economic and social resources families and communities need? Many educators think not (e.g., Laster Pirtle, 2020; Sahlberg, 2020). Long-term change requires more than a “first-responder” approach.

And according to the expert on Finnish education, Pasi Sahlberg (2020), we can do much better. Sahlberg hopes American educators themselves will lead post-pandemic school reform with an agenda for equity and social justice much more clearly in view.

There may be broad support for at least parts of such an agenda. For instance, the Committee for Economic Development (2020, p. 3) advises that “COVID-19 has only made it clearer that the nation must invest so that all American children reach their full potential. This is fundamental to sustaining capitalism and to our democracy.” OLAC strongly believes that educators have an important role to play in fostering equity and advancing social justice.

Pandemic Lesson #2: Rebuilding Strong, Trusting Relationships with Families and Communities

The pandemic drove home a critical lesson: educators individually and education as an institution really are playing critically important community roles. Decades of teacher-bashing were sidelined during the pandemic, at least for a while. The institution of education could get food to all families that needed it. And educators personally worried about families. They visited families and set up contacts and support networks. Districts in rural places and cities sent buses around with Wi-Fi hotspots. School districts’ partnerships with other community-oriented organizations strengthened.

Because of their care for children, educators are in regular touch with families. During the pandemic, however, the scope of such regular contact widened, necessarily. Educators carried on with instruction and all these other activities by any means possible (Gutierrez et al., 2020; Henson, 2020; Johnson, 2020; Strauss, 2020).

What are the implications from this lesson? Educators, schools, districts, and the state should elevate the importance of community and family engagement to children’s learning and well-being (Berliner, 2020; CRPE, 2020). Building on this lesson will be hard work because, in the 20th century, the public education system evolved to distance schools from their communities—to separate them from their natural public (Mathews, 2006; Meier, 2003; Ravitch, 2011).

Pandemic Lesson #3: Paying More Attention to Educator Wellness

Educators themselves are family and community members. And the pandemic made exceptional demands on them and on their families. They taught from their homes surrounded by their own families, and in school under pandemic-imposed restrictions. Exhaustion was a common experience (Luthra, 2021).

Educators were lucky if they could spend time away from screens and phones, seek social support from friends and colleagues, and use activities such as meditation, yoga, and athletics to discharge stress and regulate their own emotions. (Collins, 2020; Henson, 2020). In Ohio, educator wellness was among the major concerns of district leaders by summer 2020 (Buckeye Association of School Administrators, 2020).

School districts can certainly apply this lesson of the pandemic by attending seriously to teacher wellness in the future. They might work with teacher unions to establish or expand existing wellness provisions. Alternatives might include reimbursement for individual wellness options; arranging wellness activities during the school day; or developing whole-school efforts that include students, educators, and community members (Faggert, 2019).

Pandemic Lesson #4: Building on Lessons Learned!

The lessons for educators were hard-won from this disaster. That’s a lesson unto itself, and it’s the most important. District leaders should ask themselves—and their teachers and their communities—what lessons did they learn. They should really ask: using interviews, focus groups, surveys, public forums, and private conversations. And they should follow up with action, and with a commitment to make incremental improvement for years to come. In the case of educators, for instance, professional development might address:

  • community engagement,
  • anti-racist community action,
  • economic justice in the community, and
  • bilingual and multilingual competence for educators.

The Challenge of Pandemic Reality

It’s important that all these good lessons stick. The pandemic was a challenge, but it revealed many other long-term and ongoing challenges relating to the connections between school districts and families. By strengthening the linkages, districts, families, and communities can all work together to solve problems and build a stronger future.


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