We are still failing to support our most vulnerable students

In October 2020, Bellwether Education Partners’ estimate that as many as 3 million students were missing in the margins and were receiving no formal education at all became a national shorthand about the severity of the pandemic for America’s young people. More than one year later, and with the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic wreaking havoc, we still don’t know how many of our most vulnerable students are missing from K-12 schools

Our recent analysis estimates that there are 1.3 million fewer students nationwide enrolled in public pre-K through 12 schools between 2018-19 and 2020-21. This decline doesn’t include kids enrolled but not attending regularly or engaged in learning, which data from school districts suggest is a significant issue.  

As we pass the two-year mark in this pandemic, a lack of accurate, shareable, and even knowable data on where young people are highlights an even more fundamental issue: The design of systems meant to support young people is failing them.

For example, we know that one in 500 U.S. children lost a caregiver due to COVID-19. This kind of deep loss will change a young person’s life trajectory. Our communities aren’t ready to support them or their peers who have experienced other significant losses and disruptions.

In most places, schools, foster care agencies, juvenile justice systems, and other organizations were never designed to look across the totality of a young person’s life to understand and meet their needs — and that problem is more visible now than ever. Snap impressions, red tape, and confusion abound. 

Young people experiencing disruptions (such as homelessness, being placed in foster care, involvement with the juvenile justice system, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, or the loss of a caregiver) must navigate a byzantine network of ever-changing adults to get the services they need. They are left to keep track of their own paperwork, follow up with adults, and retell their most painful stories. Missteps navigating these systems can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, incarceration, job loss, or all of the above. 

While adults working in these systems often fail to communicate or collaborate, they are also frustrated by not having enough information or resources. Staff turnover is high and caseloads are unmanageable. Resources are scarce. Patchworked attempts at improvement within one agency or one organization yield marginal results for young people.

Ultimately, poorly designed or implemented systems leave lasting effects on young people, including challenges to finishing high school or college, shortchanging their ability to live a healthy, happy, and gratifying life — all at great cost to communities. 

These are big, but solvable problems. And they start with better practices, policies, and resource allocations.

In practice, communities can start by listening to young people to better understand their unmet needs in order to remove the barriers to delivering programs and services. At best, decision-makers merely go through the motions of asking young people about their experiences and perspectives. Yet the young people who are still struggling to thrive are the only experts in how the pandemic has affected them holistically: their schooling, mental health, economic futures, housing status, and more. 

In-person schooling this year is a big step in the right direction when COVID-19 safety protocols are followed and new variants don’t pose an additional public health risk. But students need more than the standard learning time. 

Prioritizing more time for all kinds of learning for marginalized student populations, such as support outside of the traditional school day and school year, is a start. More evening and weekend instructional time with a teacher or well-trained tutor would allow students to get needed time to build knowledge and skills. In addition to one-on-one time, small, cohort-based acceleration academies could allow students to focus on targeted skill gaps during holidays, summer breaks, and weekends. 

A school, however, is only part of the solution to missed learning time. Schools can build structured partnerships with communities and families, collaboratively setting goals for students, bringing a sense of urgency and ownership for every adult in a child’s life. In these spaces, schools can also become supporting partners for the delivery of other services, helping to knit together the threads of care surrounding their most vulnerable students. 

Policy should follow practice and remove barriers to learning. In addition, a focus on data transparency could better enable schools and stakeholders to understand where students missing in the margins are in real time: across enrollment in school at all, daily attendance, and engagement in learning. Our data systems were not working well before the pandemic and they clearly no longer serve our needs; students were always lost in the system, but now the problem is too big to ignore. 

These kinds of systemic practice and policy changes require better long-term resource allocations. Federal stimulus funding is a huge, but temporary, start. A more sustainable funding model can be designed on a collaborative foundation of partnerships with community-based organizations, expanding the current capacity for support. For example, a homeless-services organization might be well positioned to identify families (or unaccompanied youth) who need education support but don’t know how to get connected with the programs that meet their needs.

As we come to the close of yet another school year amid the pandemic, even more young people are in crisis and support from adults is even more strained. But communities can use this moment to build a coherent system with processes and policies designed around what young people actually need. The question is, how will we prioritize doing that hard work?