Summer is winding down and it is usually the time parents and children begin preparing for the coming school year. Tragically, this year countless families and children will experience unimaginable trauma because of all the uncertainty that accompanies a relentless pandemic. There is absolute consensus that children need to be in school. They need to continue their development. They need to socialize with friends. And many of their parents need them to be back in their routine if there is any chance they will return to work and provide for their wellbeing. For too many children, school is also their guarantee of a nourishing meal.
Sparring politicians vacillate while millions of unemployed Americans have lost their lifeline of an adequate unemployment check. Thousands are facing eviction from their housing as the moratorium ends. How can one even begin to think about school if you don’t have a secure place to live? The so-called leader of the free world has decided to stop acting like he is the President, spending his days looking for something or someone to blame for his incompetence. I get nauseous each time our congressional representatives exit a meeting with the message that they are making progress. If there is deal to be made, then make it.
In the face of all of this, there are social workers and other scholars who are trying to devise contingencies to navigate the dysfunction. Dr. Michael S. Kelly, professor at Loyola University School of Social Work, and Dr. Ron Avi Astor, professor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affair, along with several colleagues, recently released a research brief for policymakers that addresses many of the concerns confronting parents and schools in deciding when and how to open. Many of the schools in the survey are catastrophes without the pandemic. Covid-19 exacerbates problems that have existed for years.
Titled, In The COVID-19 Era: School Social Workers’ Experiences and Recommendations, the brief presents findings from a study of 1275 school social workers detailing the challenges confronting schools beset by the pandemic. Most of the social workers practice in low-income schools and communities. In half of the schools, more than 60 percent of students were eligible for free or subsidized lunch. Unsurprisingly, they serve a large proportion of Black, Latino and other minority students with great needs for food, housing, physical and mental health services. Although many display remarkable resolve in meeting these challenges, much of the work is done with few resources and governmental support.
After reading the brief and the more detailed technical report, it seems social workers are being asked once again to suit up for mission impossible. “We need a Manhattan Project-style initiative that pulls together all relevant professions—educators, administrators, school psychologists, counselors, social workers, nurses, and other health professionals—to create strategic plans for the upcoming school year,” the authors conclude. They are seeking a national plan for the short and long term to go fully online, go fully in-person, or a hybrid that would include online and in-person activities. Need for a national plan. Sounds familiar.
Events of the past few month demonstrate just how broken our system is. Public awareness has increased about the deadly effects of racism. I hope we are learning about the danger of placing the future of the country essentially in the hands of capitalists whose primary preoccupation is instant gratification from higher profits and a rising stock market. There is a price to pay for dallying as economic inequality and global warming proceeds apace with little attention and mediation. Donald Trump is not the problem. He is a symptom of all that is wrong with our social contract.
In a recent public forum, Columbia School of Social Work dean Dr. Melissa Begg said it is time we bring social work thinking to various interdisciplinary tables. I am intrigued by the idea of social work thinking. At the least it is informed by our unique set of values. The latest Gallup Poll reports 86 percent of Americans believe our country is headed in the wrong direction. What ideas to social workers have that might help right this ship? We have the scholars. We have the science. But are we putting our thinking to what is needed the most? We will soon launch the Social Work Democracy Project that will generate ideas about where this country needs to be headed. Stay tuned.