When schools across the nation closed early in 2020 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, millions of students’, teachers’, and families’ lives were upended, imparting a high social and economic toll on low-income communities of color. The closures exacerbated existing disparities they faced in the areas of health, safety, and education, as well as the trauma they experienced from systemic racism and marginalization. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), adverse consequences of school closures have included: interrupted learning, confusion and stress for families and educators, poor nutrition, gaps in childcare, rise in dropout rates, increased exposure of children to violence and exploitation, strain on healthcare systems, and social isolation. As a result, when school leaders planned to start the 2020 school year, they faced the critical task of supporting their communities’ wellbeing in unprecedented conditions.
In response to the disruption and heightened trauma created by school closures, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative awarded five community-based organizations (CBO) $170,000 each to partner with schools that served primarily Black, Latinx, and/or indigenous communities. Their charge was to engage in meaningful collaboration in support of the re-entry and re-opening plans of their partner schools. The five CBOs were: Beloved Community, DC PAVE, Equal Opportunity Schools, Kingmakers of Oakland, and RISE Colorado. The partnerships between CBOs and schools focused on addressing racialized inequities that were magnified by the pandemic. They also emphasized implementation efforts that engaged school members in meaningful participation throughout the whole project from identifying project goals to designing re-entry plans that would support the social and emotional wellbeing of teachers, students, and families. Each project operated in a short time frame, from August to December, laying important foundations for continued work the rest of the school year.
The following case studies illuminate insights about the pressing needs of each project’s stakeholders, how the partnerships unfolded to address these needs, and how the projects impacted the wellbeing of teachers, staff, students, and families. Education researchers documented each project with an ethnographic stance built on qualitative methods and community-based engagement, which included: observations of planning and implementation meetings; interviews and focus groups; analysis of project documents; and a photovoice survey. These case studies were written to provide school leaders examples of what school restarting and recovery guidance might look like during the pandemic and beyond. The following page summarizes key insights that transcended the individual projects, while the case studies offer an in-depth look at the unique aspects of each project.
- “Recovery” and “restarting” cannot mean going back to the way things were.
Students and families, mostly from low-income and/or underrepresented minority communities, understood that the pandemic devastated them disportionately more than their wealthier White counterparts. As a result, it was impossible to separate their material and socio-emotional needs from their demand for a more just world. CBO leaders and school administrators recognized this and were explicit that their response to the pandemic had to do more than patch up surface issues: they had to do the work of fighting racism, marginalization, violence, and other acts of white supremacy that ravished their communities for they knew that they needed to return to a better school than the one they left.
- The right to participate is imperative to wellbeing.
While the needs of school members varied across contexts, most teachers, staff, families, and students found common ground in their need to 1) voice their perspectives in the school’s response to the pandemic, 2) connect and feel belonging to their larger school community, and 3) feel a sense of stability and control in time of so much change. Being seen, heard, and taken seriously as active participants in their school communities played crucial roles to their wellbeing.
- Relief from turbulent times.
The broader impact of these projects is yet to be seen since the projects only served as an initial piece of larger decisions and plans to be carried out by the school communities. However, reports by school leaders, teachers, students, and families indicated that the projects produced relief and calm by supporting them in healing-centered ways at a time when they needed it most.
- CBO-School partnerships were a natural and necessary source of transformation.
The projects’ success stemmed from meaningful interactions between the CBOs and the schools they served. Most of the project partnerships arose from existing relationships; however, the partnerships were also fueled by a shared commitment to creating a more socially just world. The CBOs and schools were like-minded partners that did not need convincing that community engaged work was essential. Schools offered their full participation and the planting bed for change while the CBOs offered their expertise in DEI, organizational change, community engagement, and research skills.
- No right way to “re-enter.”
School stakeholders represent diverse, and sometimes competing, priorities for school re-entry. Most schools in the project started in the fall virtually, while one school adopted a hybrid approach. Many parents, teachers, and students voiced safety concerns about in-person schooling. Some voiced the privilege to be back on campus in one school. However, all stakeholders agreed that the pandemic had imposed new ways of doing school that brought hardship and stress. There was no “ideal” re-entry plan or response that would satisfy everyone or that would not pose a burden on someone.
Grantees and Project Descriptions
|Approach to Wellbeing
|Libertas College Preparatory
|Los Angeles, CA
|Community connection and empowerment through development of school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion practices on an organization level
|Thurgood Marshall Academy
|Offer families agency over decisions made in school through a four-step process: Inform, Engage, Organize, Activate (based on Joyce Epstein’s Model of School Involvement)
|Crete-Monee High School
|Support the mental health of students by centering belonging, healing-centered engagement, and positioning students as agents of change.
|Kingmakers of Oakland
|Piedmont Ave. Elementary School
|Provide community activities and material provisions to support families’ sense of belonging and connectedness
|Village East Elementary School
|Develop a sense of belonging among students, staff, and families using RISE’s 3-part approach: Educate families about ending the opportunity gap; Engage families in community-led change; and Empower families to serve in community leadership roles