President Biden has introduced a massive infrastructure plan that would, among other things, invest $100 billion in building and restoring American public schools. In the meantime, students and teachers everywhere are returning to school. Most will be at school for only a fraction of the time they used to spend there. These are “hybrid” schedules, where students attend in cohorts, in an effort to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines in our over-capacity and underfunded public schools.

As students begin to return, the question lies less with whether they will go back — most students will be attending school in person at least part of the time this school year, and there is an expectation that most students will return in full. The question we have to answer is how to return students to school safely, and to address their needs and supports to make sure they are healthy – mentally and physically – and able to learn.

One barrier to learning during the pandemic has been the digital divide. While schoolwork and research have moved increasingly online during the pandemic, 20% of parents said their kids likely lacked access to the resources necessary to finish their homework online. However, for years before the pandemic, the homework gap has contributed to massive achievement disparities. Students without access to reliable broadband struggle to keep up as school and learning increasingly incorporate technology.

Many have underlined the necessity of confronting “learning loss.” There is good reason to dispute the validity of these concerns. In addition, the pandemic has given many educators the opportunity to reconsider learning, questioning long-held assumptions about what is and isn’t learning. Regardless, it is important to recognize that high-stakes testing is not the answer. In the best of times, high-stakes testing undercuts the nature of learning by treating learning as something to be objectified. The story of learning cannot be told by multiple-choice and when teachers, schools, and students are judged on this metric, classrooms and curriculums become cold and formulaic. During the coronavirus pandemic, high-stakes testing will punish the very schools that it purports to help. The schools and students that have been most hurt by the pandemic will be the same schools that see their funding siphoned by charters, increased teacher shortages, and even shutdowns.

Mental Health

As we try to return to “normal,” schools must work to support students who experienced trauma during their time out of school. Many students lost loved ones or experienced economic, mental, or physical distress over the course of the pandemic. The mental health care needs of children are rapidly increasing.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, mental health-related emergency room visits for children increased by 24% for children ages 5-to-11 and 31% for children ages 12-to-17 last year. Counselors, school nurses, wellness offices, social workers, and homeless liaisons must be prepared to provide compassionate care to students. Underfunding means that these staff will often be overwhelmed and under-resourced.

The American Rescue Plan, recently signed into law by President Biden, includes millions of dollars in funding directed to children’s mental health efforts. This is a positive start but it will take a sustained effort to address the existing and new mental health needs of children. Schools will receive nearly $130 billion to aid them in reopening. Mental health services and social-emotional learning are allowable uses of those funds, but not required. First Focus on Children recently joined nearly 100 other organizations in asking the Biden Administration to issue guidance for schools focused on the mental health supports and social-emotional learning that we believe will be necessary as students return to school and begin to recover from the trauma suffered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We must maintain focus on the mental health needs of children as we all begin to recover.  

As President Biden looks to see every adult vaccinated by summer, we are still waiting for a vaccine for our children. The story of COVID-19 has long been that it does not affect children, but it has in innumerable ways, including through their health. As of April 1, 2021, nearly 3.5 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, and 284 have died due to the virus. That is 284 preventable deaths and 284 families in unspeakable pain. And this number represents an undercount, as not all states report this data or report it in the same way, and the child share of overall COVID-19 cases in this country is on the rise. Children have been susceptible to Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), and 75 percent of children with this illness did not experience any COVID-19 symptoms at the time of infection.

Students will be back in school soon. There is little uncertainty on that. What’s necessary is that we make sure students and school staff are supported and safe in returning to schools. For that, we need massive investments in the infrastructure and personnel within those schools.

At the same time, as states begin to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions and protections, more adults get vaccinated, and more social activities begin to return to pre-COVID-19 practices, unvaccinated children will be increasingly at risk. We call on the Administration to create a plan — tailored specifically for the unique needs of children — for getting children of all ages vaccinated against COVID-19 as expeditiously, efficiently, and effectively as possible.