Opinion: Bringing Greater Equity To Our Educational System In The Age Of COVID-19 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on health inequities with disproportionate percentages of low-income Americans, particularly communities of color, contracting and dying from the disease. 

Researchers working to better understand the underlying causes of the negative health outcomes across these communities are increasingly focusing on the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age that science tells us shapes our health and wellbeing.

Often referred to as the social determinants of health, these conditions include socioeconomic status, educational success, access to quality healthcare, food security, income equality, reduced stress and more. What is becoming clear is the extent to which these underlying conditions, including access and opportunity for a quality education, are driving health outcomes and are the reason for many of the health inequities we are seeing across this pandemic.

Recent research has shown a clear linkage between lifetime health, education success and economic mobility. When we look closer at the root causes of inequities, we can better understand the conditions, many of them interconnected, that enable children to succeed in school, and in life. 

The current crisis presents both an opportunity and a mandate to reimagine education in the context of these social determinants to better serve all young people and put them on a path to economic mobility, health and wellbeing. Our health care, human services, and education systems are radically adapting at a rate unimaginable prior to the pandemic. Leaders across a variety of sectors are seeking ways to scale and spread innovative, cross-system strategies to better serve all communities in this new normal.

Human services community-based organizations offer a unique lens on the systems that shape and support children and families across their lifespan including education. Increasingly, human services professionals are going beyond our traditional roles and focusing on K-12 education as a means to improve lifelong outcomes for children, families, and communities. 

Re-envisioning an educational system that works for all students will require a radical and adaptive approach that starts with an understanding of how the social determinants of health impact child well-being and readiness to learn. It will require deep and generative partnerships across the community to ensure the basic needs of all families are met. It requires an adaptation within schools to the latest science on brain development, which has demonstrated that adverse experiences  (unstable housing, food insecurity, parental substance abuse, etc.) can result in toxic stress in a developing child which disrupts students’ emotional, behavioral, and academic development.  

Because human service community-based organizations work at the nexus of families, communities, and the public and private systems that interface in their lives, we know firsthand the importance and impact of breaking down the artificial walls between schools and communities. All child-serving public systems (e.g., general/special education, child protection, healthcare, mental health, juvenile justice, housing, etc.) must effectively collaborate as an ecosystem, leverage the expertise and assets of one another, and work to deliver integrated and highly coordinated services that set the conditions for child and family success so that children can experience education success.

An example of this principle in action can be found in the Children’s Home Society of Florida’s work in collaboration with statewide colleges, universities, health centers and school districts to launch Florida’s Community Partnership Schools. They are partnering across the community to tackle the root causes that prevent students from reaching their full potential by providing an array of services under one roof, including teacher consultation, parental supports, health and wellness services, nutritional programs, recreational opportunities, and mental health services. As a result, students are excelling with improved school attendance, greater academic proficiency, increased college readiness, enhanced parental involvement and higher graduation rates.

Just as no two neighborhoods are alike, no two Community Partnership Schools are the same. The services and assistance offered at each school are tailored to the needs of the community.

The success of this initiative demonstrates key levers driving educational success: generative partnerships across the community, the use of prevention and early intervention strategies, the use of brain science research, the promotion of a whole-child, whole-family, whole-school, and whole-community approach, the advancement of equity, diversity, and inclusion, and the leveraging of schools as a hub for asset-based community development.

COVID-19 has introduced disruptive change across all sectors and systems and has underscored the urgency of identifying the policy and fiscal levers we need to pull in order to start a new and more just chapter in our nation’s history. We know that equitable access to education means more than ensuring kids have the technical resources to access distance learning. It will require new strategies for accessing education, both in the classroom and outside the classroom. 

It’s time to bring new perspectives to the conversation about what it will take to ensure those goals for all students in this country. Based on the unique lens that human services organizations have on the diverse needs and challenges of communities and the deeper understanding of the impact of social determinants on health equity and educational success, we will be working to have a national voice of influence and a seat at the table when it comes to addressing real solutions for educational reform in our country.  During a period when COVID-19 has pulled the curtain back on the inequities across our systems, we can’t forget the indisputable connection between education success, economic mobility and health. This imperative is stronger and more important than ever

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Susan N. Dreyfus is president and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a strategic action network of thousands of social sector workers. The views in this piece reflect the work of the Alliance’s Education Policy Group comprised of the following member organizations: Beech Acres Parenting Center, Children & Families First, Children’s Guild, Children’s Home Society of Florida, Children’s Institute, Inc., Cornerstones of Care, Family Service of Rhode Island, Martha O’Bryan Center, Northwestern University Settlement House, OhioGuidestone, Pillsbury United Communities, SaintA, Seneca Family of Agencies, Starr Commonwealth, The Village Network, and Trillium Family Services, Inc.