Opinion: Bringing greater equity to our education system in the age of COVID-19

Opinion: Bringing greater equity to our education system in the age of COVID-19

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

Researchers working to better understand the underlying causes of negative health outcomes in these communities are increasingly focusing on the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, which, according to science, shapes our health and well-being.

Often referred to as the social determinants of health, these conditions include socioeconomic status, educational achievement, access to quality health care, food security, income equality, stress reduction and more. What becomes clear is the extent to which these underlying conditions, including access to and opportunity for quality education, influence health outcomes and drive many health inequities we are seeing throughout this pandemic.

Recent research has shown a clear link between lifelong health, educational achievement and economic mobility. When we take a closer look at the root causes of inequality, we can better understand the conditions, many of which are interrelated, that allow children to succeed in school and in life.

The current crisis presents both an opportunity and a mandate to rethink education in the context of these social determinants to better serve all young people and set them on a path to economic mobility, health and well-being. be. Our health care, social service and education systems are adapting dramatically at a rate unimaginable before the pandemic. Leaders from various sectors are looking for ways to scale and spread innovative, cross-system strategies to better serve all communities in this new normal.

Community-based human service organizations offer a unique perspective on the systems that shape and support children and families throughout their lives, including education. Increasingly, social service professionals are moving beyond our traditional roles and focusing on K-12 education as a way to improve lifelong outcomes for children, families, and communities. .

Redesigning an education system that works for all students will require a radical and adaptive approach that begins with an understanding of how the social determinants of health influence a child’s well-being and ability to learn. This will require deep and generative partnerships across the community to ensure that the basic needs of all families are met. This requires adapting within schools to the latest science on brain development, which has shown that negative experiences (unstable housing, food insecurity, parental drug addiction, etc.) can lead to toxic stress. in a developing child who disrupts the emotional, behavioral and academic development of students.

Because community-based human service organizations work at the intersection of families, communities, and the public and private systems that interact in their lives, we know firsthand the importance and impact of breaking down the artificial walls between schools and communities. All public systems serving children (e.g. general/special education, child protection, health care, mental health, juvenile justice, housing, etc.) need to work together effectively in As an ecosystem, leverage the expertise and strengths of others and work for integrated and highly coordinated services that set the conditions for child and family success so that children can experience academic success.

An example of this principle in action can be found in the work of the Children’s Home Society of Florida in collaboration with colleges, universities, health centers and school districts statewide to initiate Florida’s Community Partnership Schools. They partner with the entire community to tackle the root causes that prevent students from reaching their full potential by offering a range of services under one roof, including teacher consultation, parenting support, health and wellness, nutritional programs, recreational opportunities and mental health. services. As a result, students excel with better school attendance, better academic proficiency, better college readiness, better parental involvement, and higher graduation rates.

Just as no two neighborhoods are the same, no two Community Partner Schools are the same. The services and assistance offered in each school are adapted to the needs of the community.

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

COVID-19 has introduced disruptive changes to all sectors and systems and underscored the urgency of identifying the policy and fiscal levers we need to begin a new, fairer chapter in our country’s history. We know that equitable access to education means more than making sure children have the technical resources they need to access remote learning. This will require new strategies for accessing education, both inside and outside the classroom.

It’s time to bring new perspectives to the conversation about what it will take to achieve these goals for all students in this country. Based on the unique lens that human service organizations have on the diverse needs and challenges of communities and an in-depth understanding of the impact of social determinants on health equity and educational success, we will work to have a national voice of influence and a seat at the table when it comes to finding real solutions for education reform in our country. During a time when COVID-19 has drawn the curtain on inequalities in our systems, we cannot forget the indisputable link between educational achievement, economic mobility and health. This imperative is stronger and more important than ever


Susan N. Dreyfus is President and CEO of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, a strategic action network of thousands of social service workers. The views expressed in this article 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.

Janice G. Ball