Equity and Inclusion: COVID-19’s impact on students’ academic and mental well-being

Dr. Terry Flowers of St. Philip’s School & Community Center, Dr. Sherril English from Southern Methodist University; and Bill Keslar and Dennis Palmer both from Building Solutions. – Photo courtesy of Building Solutions For Brighter Futures

 

By SELENA SEABROOKS

The Dallas Examiner

 

A fireside chat called Equity and Inclusion: COVID-19’s Impact on Students’ Academic and Mental Well-Being was hosted March 31by Building Solutions.

The discussion was the first part of the Building Solutions for Brighter Futures yearlong campaign dedicated to hosting a series of community conversations to discuss topics related to educational equity with the hope of informing and empowering the community.

Dennis Palmer, senior vice president and COO at Building Solutions, facilitated the event. He introduced the panel, which included Bill Kesler, CEO of Building Solutions; Dr. Terry Flowers, Perot Family Headmaster of St. Phillip’s School and Community Center; and Dr. Sherril English, clinical associate professor at Southern Methodist University’s Simmons School of Education and Human Development.

Palmer stated that he hoped the discussion will “shed some light on the issues surrounding the pandemic and education.” He then began a Q&A session, asking the panelist a series of questions.

 

Question: What has SMU learned about the pandemic’s effect on academic achievement among K12 students? What are some of the major differences among students and what barriers have caused these differences?

English referred to a study that was published last summer by the American Educational Research Journal. The study revealed that more than half of U.S. students have experienced summer learning losses five years in a row. English noted that students of color and economically disadvantaged students who do not experience rich-learning opportunities during the summer will encounter “summer slide.”

“That is where academic achievement disparities disproportionately widen for those students in the summer,” she continued, explaining that as a result of students not being able to be physically in the classroom since last March, due to the pandemic, educators are in for an unusually long summer. She then mentioned what she believes that one of the major concerns that have resulted from COVID-19 and its impact on the academic learning of students’ social-emotional learning. She explained that students are missing out on learning that occurs outside of everyday math, reading, etc. Students are missing out on learning social skills, academic perseverance and mindsets.

“Quantifying the short-term and long-term, academic and non-academic impact of COVID-19, is going to be ongoing,” English stated.

 

Question: What can parents do during the summer to help improve or at least shorten that gap?

English encouraged parents to read to and with their children for at least 15 to 30 minutes per day. She explained that reading enhances vocabulary and helps combat any learning loss that may take place. English also suggested allowing students to work or volunteer as a way to gain back some social-emotional skills.

 

Question: In what ways do facility operating practices affect learning? What is the significance of building maintenance and how is it reflected in the effect of the pandemic on a school?

“Facilities exist to facilitate,” Keslar responded. She went on to explain that for schools, “they facilitate learning and teaching by promoting favorable conditions that are comfortable, less stressful environments.” He stated that the objective of facilities, specifically schools, is to manage the comfort and the accommodation of learning. He said that this occurs by managing things like temperature, humidity, having cleaning and orderly surroundings, health and safety, and lighting. Keslar stated that there is a lot of research that shows that learning is more effective in spaces that have healthier indoor air. He indicated that given COVID-19, “health is taken to a new level of importance.”

 

Question: Because many students weren’t able to learn key concepts during the pandemic, what are the implications for schools and for students, and what are the options for recovery?

Flowers responded that the implications are going to be the need for additional support for students, both inside and outside of the classroom. He stated, “there will be a need for parents to be more intentional about supporting student learning.” He spoke to field trips and how they were an extension of learning but were disrupted as a result of the pandemic. He suggested that families take this opportunity to visit some of these resources throughout the city and use them as learning opportunities. Flowers stated that for students, “school is an outlet. It’s a chance to get away from your parents and get away from your household and the circumstances in your household…it’s a chance for you to be loved on.” Due to the pandemic, a “void” has been created that has be to replaced or adjusted for in the lives of students.

 

Question: How do we begin to gauge how extreme the learning loss is and what research is being done to understand this? What will the societal impact of the learning loss be and how can we make it up?

English spoke to the students who lose the opportunity to attend graduation, prom, homecoming and other high school events and how missing these events may lead them to question whether or not they will be prepared for the next step. She stated that students of color and economically disadvantaged students already lack in the area of college and career readiness; as such, “the loss of learning and the loss of interaction and the loss of just feeling like ‘did I really graduate,’ is going to impact their future success in society.” English said we must be understanding of this and give students opportunities to work and learn. Regarding current research, English stated that there is a lot of research available about the impacts of COVID-19 on students; however, she encouraged teachers and schools to conduct their own research. She encouraged teachers to talk to students and ask students what they feel they need; what areas do they feel they need more assistance; and how are they doing from a mental health standpoint. English explained that teachers and schools should take the information gathered from speaking to students, and use that information to inform them of what they should do moving forward. She said, “focus on your school and on your students and what their needs are.”

 

Questions: What should the approach be for school reopening? How do we ensure this is an equitable process?

“You will not ensure that it will be an equitable process because it didn’t start off as an equitable process,” Flowers stated. He explained that it will be very difficult to achieve an equitable process and said that we must ensure that we do not go back to business as usual.

Keslar added, “I worry not only that we’re not going to do away with inequities, but we have set ourselves up if we’re not highly conscious of the impact of obsolete buildings, that we can even exacerbate the gap, exacerbate the difference.” Keslar stated that we are a long way from “adequate” in a lot of places and stated that these differences are even greater in urban environments and in facilities that are serving people of color and people with fewer resources.

English urged administers to make time to listen to their teachers before coming up with a plan. She also expressed the need to allow teachers more opportunities to teach and learn with their students, as opposed to a daily or weekly assessment. She said, “Let’s just open up with a way that we listen to teachers, we listen to students … they really are the experts.”

 

Question: What basic things can families do to help students avoid discouragement based on the societal stigma of falling behind in skills and prevent them from giving up on learning all together?

Flowers stated that as a parent, the most important thing you can do is inspect, evaluate and ensure that your child is in an uplifting environment, “an environment that speaks to encouragement, that speaks to love, that speaks to motivation, prodding without penalty, encouraging students to press on and that it is affirming of who they are so no circumstance can define who they can become.”

English added that parents must talk and listen to their children and she encouraged parents to do more listening than talking.

“Listen to what your children have to say,” she said.

She continued and asked parents to trust their child’s school.

“Trust and believe that they have your child’s best interest at heart,” English stated. She said that if there is ever any doubt in this, talk to your child’s school and listen to what they have to say. She stated, “It’s important for you to trust and know what is going on, not only with the teachers but also with your children.”

 

Question: What does Building Solutions plan to do about some of the inequities?

Kesler discussed the Building Solutions for Brighter Future program, which includes hosted events that are intended to promote openness and informative discussions about the issues of educational equity. Additionally, Kesler mentioned the Building Solutions mentorship program, which aims to encourage and uplift the status of the maintenance profession in educational facilities and to train people how to do it better and build bonds among themselves. Third, Kesler talked about the Building Solutions program that has committed to contributing 3,000 professional hours to schools in the North Texas area who are interested in having an equity assessment performed on their facility. This assessment will allow schools to look at their environment through the of lens learning and teaching effectiveness.

Kesler provided closing remarks and thanked English and Flowers for their participation. He stated that the importance of teachers and being teacher-centered in the response to the impact of COVID-19, “we can individualize our analysis and research around the particulars of each institution, each situation will require a lot of bottom-up flow of information,” which emphasizes the importance of listening to teachers. Kesler encouraged those who wanted to learn more about the Building Solutions program to visit their website, https://buildingsolns.com/30th.

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