Establishing Learning Environments That Support and Affirm All Students

Research has repeatedly shown that having a sense of belonging in their school community is critical to students’ academic success and their social-emotional well-being. Even before the pandemic, however, too many students — especially students of color — were often made to feel like they did not belong in their schools. Through discipline and dress codes that disproportionately police students of color, through curricula that offer them windows, but no mirrors , through frequent (however unintentional) educator and peer microaggressions, our schools have repeatedly created learning environments that are not welcoming and not safe for students of color.

As challenging as the school disruptions of the last 18 months have been, the resulting pause in day-to-day school routines offers an immense opportunity to ensure that when students do return to school buildings, they return to places that affirm and support all learners. Here are potential steps that education leaders can take to ensure that schools are well-equipped to serve all students better than before:

Call and Visit Students and Families at Home to Build Trust and Find Out What Students Need

When it comes to kids’ routines, learning habits, and needs — not to mention their cultural identities — parents and grandparents are the experts. What’s more, for the past year and half, parents and grandparents have had a front-row seat to their children’s learning. To smooth the transition back to in-person learning, educators should call and, to the extent possible, visit families to speak with family members and students themselves about what the past 18 months have been like for them and what each student will need to feel safe, welcome, and supported in school.

Federal recovery funds can be used to help compensate teachers and other school staff for their time, to pay for training on how to conduct these visits in culturally responsive ways, to provide translators, so that all visits happen in the family’s home language, and, critically, to cover the costs of supports that emerge from these conversations.

Re-Engage Students Who Have Become Disconnected from School

Over the past 18 months, some students have become deeply disconnected from school. Some did not have access to high-speed internet and/or 1:1 devices, making online learning endlessly frustrating, if not impossible. Others struggled to stay engaged during Zoom classes or had to take on a new job and/or caregiving responsibilities as they and their families navigated these unprecedented and challenging times.

District leaders should invest in coordinated efforts to identify and proactively re-engage students who have become disconnected or have left school altogether because of COVID-19 disruptions. Federal funds can be used to help establish or expand student re-engagement teams (consider these examples from Boston and Baltimore ). Education leaders should work closely with community-based organizations to identify individuals who have a relationship with students or families and can conduct initial outreach. School or district staff should then work closely with families to develop a personalized learning and re-engagement plan for each student. These re-engagement plans should include additional flexibilities — such as flexible school models and internships/apprenticeships that enable students to earn an income while in school — for students who must work to support their families.

Mitigate COVID Risk for Students, Educators and Families

As much as we all wish the pandemic were over, as of August 2021, this is simply not the case. The onset of the Delta variant and the recent surge in case numbers make clear that when students and educators return to in-person learning this fall, education leaders will have to continue to prioritize physical safety. Education leaders should adhere to all guidelines put forth by the Center for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics – including universal masking for all students (over age 2) and adults in school buildings, regardless of vaccination status.

Minimizing risk of transmission in schools is not only a public health but an educational issue. Students cannot learn if they do not feel safe, nor can educators do their best work. Families concerned about students’ physical safety, or the risk of transmission to a vulnerable family member, may choose to forego in-person learning entirely. Mitigating COVID risk is also critical to maintaining continuity of in-person learning and reducing the need for quarantine.

Importantly, while the idea of differentiating masking requirements for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals -- as recommended in DESE’s latest COVID guidance -- may offer some risk reduction, this approach poses significant implementation challenges. Not only are differentiated requirements hard to enforce, they may also increase the risk of bullying for masked students. To help foster both physically and emotionally safe learning environments, masking requirements should remain universal until public health experts decide that masks are no longer needed.

Re-Examine Discipline Codes and Introduce More Restorative Practices

Exclusionary practices like suspension or expulsion and their disproportionate use on students of color harm not only the targeted students , but the whole school community. Minimizing the use of such practices and implementing restorative approaches will be all the more important to rebuilding a sense of trust and community as students return to in-person learning and struggle to re-adjust to the school setting. At the same time, the beginning of a new school year that comes on the heels of major disruptions creates a perfect “restart” moment when it comes to school discipline.

District and school leaders can use recovery funds to establish paid task forces, made up of school leaders, teachers, school counselors, parents/caregivers and students, to re-examine and revise, as necessary, behavior policies such as codes of conduct and dress codes to ensure that they are culturally responsive and that they minimize reliance on harsh discipline. Recovery dollars can also be used to provide ongoing, job-embedded training to all staff on restorative, trauma-responsive and culturally responsive classroom management practices, and to hire on-site restorative justice coordinators (note that because recovery funds are temporary, districts will need a plan to cover long-term salaries).

Focus on Relationship-Building for All Students – and Ensure Availability of Additional Mental Health Supports for Young People Who Need Them

"Education leaders must have a plan in place to identify students who need additional mental health supports and to provide those supports at no out-of-pocket cost to families."

Many students will return to school buildings next year with anxiety and high stress levels brought on by isolation, economic insecurity, or the loss of loved ones. For all students, fostering strong relationships with adults in the school and with peers will be critical to establishing a sense of belonging, and to students’ academic and social-emotional well-being. Some young people - including some of our youngest learners - however, will undoubtedly need more social-emotional support than an individual teacher can provide. Education leaders must have a plan in place to identify students who need additional mental health supports and to provide those supports at no out-of-pocket cost to families. Education leaders should consider using recovery funding to:

  • Provide guidance and support to educators, school leaders, and support staff — including culturally responsive high-quality professional development – on strategies to foster students’ academic, social, and emotional recovery from the pandemic and help cultivate the strengths and assets students have built over the past year.
  • Hire additional school counselors, school psychologists and other mental health professionals — especially professionals of color, professionals who are bilingual, and professionals trained in culturally responsive approaches. Note that because federal recovery resources will run out after three years, these positions will either need to be temporary, or districts/schools will need to come up with a long-term plan to cover future salaries.
  • Establish partnerships with local health clinics, mental health providers and youth and family organizations, such as Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCA, to offer support to students at no out-of-pocket cost to families.
  • Establish school-level collaborative structures that enable regular sharing of information about student well-being between teachers, administrators, and support staff to ensure that no child falls through the cracks. Consider partnering with an external provider, such as the BARR Center, to facilitate this work.

Support Students at Key Transition Points

The disruptions of the past 18 months mean that many incoming high school sophomores have never physically been inside their new school; the same is true for seventh graders entering a 6-8 middle school and first graders whose kindergarten experience was remote. Although the return to in-person schooling may be a challenge for students in any grade, students at key transition points — e.g., entering elementary school, moving from elementary to middle school or from middle to high school, or on the verge of graduation — may face additional challenges.

Education leaders can use federal resources to help all students who are currently in transition grades (e.g., incoming ninth graders, or kindergarteners) and those who were in transition grades during the pandemic to acclimate to their new schools. Federal dollars can also help offset the costs of expanding access to existing programming (e.g., open houses, school visits, days when the building is only open to students who are new to it), modifying programs (e.g., adapting freshman academy programming for incoming sophomores), or launching new programs where they do not yet exist.

For detailed recommendations on supporting current and recent juniors and seniors, see Strengthening Student Transition to College and the Workforce .

Provide Access to Virtual Learning Options

While many students struggled with remote instruction, some thrived. In a recent survey of more than 1,500 Massachusetts families, about 30% expressed an interest in remote or hybrid learning. State and district leaders should consider expanding existing virtual options, or establishing new ones, to allow students who flourished in a remote environment to continue to learn in this way. District leaders can use federal funds to create their own virtual learning opportunities or collaborate with other districts to develop cross-district programming.

Questions to Ask as an Advocate:

  1. What steps is the district taking to better understand the needs of students on an individual level following the pandemic? What is the district learning through these steps?
  2. What does the data show about the use of exclusionary discipline practices in the district/school? How do suspension, expulsion, and other discipline rates compare across student groups within our district/school? How do they compare with other districts and schools?
  3. What steps is the district taking to minimize the use of exclusionary discipline? What actions has the district/school taken to ensure that teachers and administrators are trained in restorative practices?
  4. How will the district or school ensure that all students feel a sense of belonging in the school community?
  5. How will the district or school help ensure that student mental health needs are met?

Additional Resources:
  1. Learning Policy Institute (October 1, 2020), Lost Opportunities: How Disparate School Discipline Continues to Drive Differences in the Opportunity to Learn.
  2. Learning Policy Institute (March 16, 2021), A Restorative Approach for Equitable Education.
  3. Rennie Center (June 9, 2021), Helping Students Heal from Trauma.
  4. Rennie Center (June 9, 2021), Reengaging Students.
  5. The Education Trust (August 20, 2021), “And they cared”: How to Create Better, Safer Learning Environments for Girls of Color