The classroom at San José’s Edenvale Elementary sparkles with bilingual noise. Tables of third graders are each working to write a paragraph as part of a class essay about weather. At one table, a student proposes an opening line: “¿Has visto un huracán?” (“Have you seen a hurricane?”) His tablemates nod, talking to—and over—one another in a mix of Spanish and English. He grabs a marker and starts writing, but he misses the opening ‘h’ in ‘Has,” so one of them nudges him, borrows the marker, and corrects it. “Te voy a enseñar,” she says (“I’m going to show you”).
The moment exemplifies the surrounding community’s rich cultural and linguistic assets. Edenvale hosts one of the relatively few bilingual education programs that persisted through California’s eighteen-year ban on bilingual education for English learners (ELs). Now, 63 percent of Edenvale students are currently classified as ELs, and another 11 percent are linguistically diverse former ELs who have reached English language proficiency in the past few years. Most of the school’s ELs speak Spanish at home, though a handful speak Vietnamese.
The campus’s effervescence is a product of more than a year of coordinated district efforts to support and reengage with students’ social and emotional wellbeing when schools reopened. Edenvale students’ need for these supports is hardly unique. As schools everywhere end their pandemic mitigations, it’s becoming clear that children’s route back to pre-pandemic levels of academic achievement will be longer and much more complicated than simply returning to class and removing their masks.
Children’s route back to pre-pandemic levels of academic achievement will be longer and much more complicated than simply returning to class and removing their masks.
Indeed, Edenvale’s community faced difficult, systemically unfair circumstances during the past three years. Nearly 85 percent of Edenvale students identify as Latinos, and over 60 percent of the school’s families qualify as economically disadvantaged. And as the country scrambled to create—and implement—pandemic-safe learning, data from a range of sources suggest that students from these backgrounds were often left out. Spanish-dominant families in California faced digital divides and other barriers that made it difficult for their students to engage in virtual learning. Not surprisingly, when data on California students’ academic progress rolled in last fall, Latino students, ELs, and low-income students showed particularly large—and negative—pandemic impacts.
So when the school fully reopened for in-person instruction in fall 2021, educators faced some new pandemic-driven challenges. Some children simply didn’t come back. The campus’ 2021–22 was just 80 percent of its 2018–19 number—a drop of nearly ninety students. What’s more, those that did return weren’t always consistently present. In 2021–22, the school’s chronic absenteeism rate was 43 percent—up from 16 percent in 2018–19. Edenvale wasn’t alone. The broader Oak Grove School District saw a similar spike in chronic absenteeism—from 9 percent in 2018–19 to 28 percent in 2021–22. Indeed, national data suggest that the number of chronically absent children in spring 2022 was roughly double the number before the pandemic.
In fall 2021, even when children were at school, things could get tough. “The amount of behavioral concerns we had on campus“ says Trina Trinidad-Ramirez, a social worker with the district, “none of us knew how to deal with it.”
Educators throughout the district agreed: school closures might be over, but the pandemic’s social impacts were not. “[Children] missed out on what I’m gonna call foundational skills—not just the foundational skills of learning phonics and phonemic awareness—but the foundational skills of, like, ‘What is school? It’s a different place than home. How do we interact here?’” says Sharon Leahy, an Edenvale literacy coach. Even adults were struggling to reacclimate to school behavioral norms, she continued: “Their families were impacted by that, in the way that they interact with one another, like, trying to manage the behavior of other people’s children.”
District leaders pushed first for information. Why weren’t children reliably coming to school? And what was driving students’ challenges on campus? The state required administration of the California Healthy Kids Survey for children in some older grades, but leadership wanted more. So the school designed a survey for checking on students’ perceptions about school safety and their engagement with the community several additional times that year. The first administration revealed just 53 percent of upper elementary students and 42 percent of middle school students reporting that they had an adult they could reach out to at school if they needed to talk.
This felt like a wakeup call. “We very clearly realize that academic performance can’t happen without that other piece, the social and emotional health of students,” says Amy Boles, Oak Grove’s assistant superintendent of educational services, “We’re talking about the hierarchy of needs of students in tandem always with the goal of advancing the academics.”
“We very clearly realize that academic performance can’t happen without that other piece, the social and emotional health of students.”
The district responded by prioritizing school climate in drafting its accountability plan for the next several years, focusing on ways to “provide school and classroom environments that support learning, safety, engagement and healthy well-being.”
First, administrators disaggregated the survey data and identified students who responded that they didn’t feel safe at school and/or felt they didn’t have a trusted adult on campus. They then “decided to put faces to these students,” says Veronica Altamirano, an Edenvale teacher coach focused on English learners. “So we brought it back to the entire staff, we put those students up around the room, and we had a conversation, like, ‘Who do you think you can connect with?’”
Teachers surveyed the names posted around the room and matched themselves with students they would periodically check on. Staff committed to making these check-ins substantive exchanges, with at least five conversational back-and-forths between teacher and student per check in. To build trust, they also planned to link the conversations. If a teacher checked in on one of his students during recess and she mentioned jumping rope, he might make sure to ask about it the next time he sought her out, Altamirano said, to help the student feel seen and appreciated: “First, it’s like ‘Oh you remembered that I jump rope, right?’ but it’s really about building that connection.”
Edenvale also committed staff—and resources—toward spaces to help students with the transition back to daily schooling. On Fridays, first grade teacher Kerry Sommer began opening her classroom for students who wanted a quiet recess space to read, build with the K’NEX building system, or chat with her and other students.
The school also used its federal Expanded Learning Opportunities grant to open a Wellness Center in October with support from their social work intern—a graduate student working on campus to log hours towards their full social work license. The goal was to create a space at school that, perhaps, felt a little less overtly and traditionally like school. “Counselors were overwhelmed,” says Trinidad-Ramirez, the social worker. “[The Wellness Center] was a response to the mental health needs on campus…creating a space that is welcoming, that is safe, [where] students don’t feel like they’re in a sterile classroom, on hard furniture.”
“There are different spaces around the room that serve different purposes,” says Leahy, the literacy coach. “In one corner, there’s a nice rug with some cozy pillows and a calm down corner. It’s a place for kids to just relax and hang out. Another space is set up for kids to play games and connect with one another.”
Eberardo Lopez, Edenvale’s social work intern this year, says that he sees five or six children in the Wellness Center each day he’s on campus. But capacity has been a challenge. As an intern, he only comes three days a week—and the center is closed when he’s not there. He and Trinidad-Ramirez agree that the center would be full of students every day, if only there were funding to staff it five days a week.
Resources devoted to SEL are shrinking at Edenvale—and around the country—as emergency COVID funding streams wind down. “The challenge we’re finding now is that the one-time funding is expiring, but the needs are still here,” says Boles, the assistant superintendent. “In fact, I think the needs were here even before Covid…[T]he current challenge that we’re sitting on is that we have families and students and staff who have seen and have been dependent on these services to help the students get to a baseline where they can then receive the academic learning, and that these funds are sunset.”
Still, by January of 2023, the district’s chronic absenteeism rates were down to around 17 percent—and by March 2023, they’d dropped down to 15 percent. That’s solid progress toward Oak Grove’s 5 percent goal by 2023–24, but also proof that the pandemic’s effects on children didn’t end when the country wound down its pandemic mitigations. There’s so much more to do, says Trinidad-Ramirez: “I know we’re trying, but it’s not fast enough, and it’s not good enough.” she says. “A lot of us are stuck on what it was like before, and having control of classrooms the way it was before, and how students engaged and interacted before…Education as a whole has to shift our view of kids and our way of engaging with kids.”
Have you seen a hurricane? What about the wreckage such catastrophes leave behind? Much as the country might like to skip past the past three years of stress, anxiety, and trauma, it’s clear that the figurative cleanup is going to take years.