Even 10 months into the pandemic, most Black and brown students in urban school settings were not receiving in-school or in-person instruction. All of their courses were being delivered remotely. In New York state, Jay Rey, in an article in The Buffalo News, reports that the majority of urban districts had been closed since March of 2020. As educators, we are concerned about the educational loss and gaps in students’ knowledge because of the lack of in-school instruction.

Because of the pandemic, students on average will incur five to nine months of educational loss, but that loss is significantly larger for students of color, according to Emma Dorn, Bryan Hancock, Jimmy Sarakatsannis, and Ellen Viruleg in their article “COVID-19 and Student Learning in the United States: The Hurt Could Last a Lifetime.” They state that Black students may fall behind by 10.3 months, Hispanic students by 9.2 months, and low-income students by more than a year, with exacerbated achievement gaps of 15%–20%. This is extremely concerning.

But additional barriers must also be considered. CDC hospital data show racial disparity in COVID-19 cases; Black and brown families are negatively impacted by COVID-19 more than any other group in the country, according to Allison Aubrey and Joe Neek’s report, “CDC Hospital Data Point to Racial Disparity in COVID-19 Cases.” And the research that Linda Darling-Hammond and I have done also revealed that secondary school principals in urban schools need more training to understand the needs of their Black and brown students, because the hard truth is that students of color returning to school may also bring new compounded concerns—including joblessness of parents, the loss of loved ones, abuse, lack of food, depression, and homelessness—indicating increased difficulties in meeting the needs of daily survival.

With all of these stressors, urban school principals must ask, “How do we create a safe culture to bring students back into school?” (In this context, “safety” does not refer to sanitizing school buildings, practicing social distancing, and wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Safety refers to the social, emotional, psychological, and academic well-being of the students and the teachers.)

Secondary school principals must create a culture that supports, embraces, and accepts all as they acknowledge the communal trauma of COVID-19. John Hoyle, in “Skills for Successful 21st Century School Leaders: Standards for Peak Performers,” states that school climate is one of the key components in a successful school program and that high levels of performance are almost impossible without it.

Assessing the Culture

Urban Black and brown students face higher levels of social-emotional issues, lower graduation rates, as well as many other concerns that teachers must effectively deal with. Consequently, teachers’ needs must also be met. Happy teachers equal happy students, so teachers must form great relationships based on the example set for them by their administration. School leaders must extend themselves to engage students in as many ways as possible. While the following tasks may seem pedestrian, they are unequivocally important for teachers and administrators:

  1. Stand at the doors and in hallways to greet students, make eye contact, and say “good morning” to all.
  2. Memorize everyone’s name, learn something new about each student, and have conversations beyond academics and the classroom.
  3. Share appropriate portions of their own lives, displaying that educators are human and care. Consider asking students who helped them to find strength during the health crisis, inspired them, or helped them continue moving forward.

These strategies create unity and a community of support.

Institutionalize Culture Knowledge

Educators need to develop a rich, culturally competent, infused curriculum where students can see representations of themselves and their cultures. Utilize a consistent instructional framework to reduce confusion among students and teachers.

The framework must focus on standards, objectives, and assessments and have self-pacing built into it, with a desire for the students to build critical thought and reduce learning gaps. Researcher Rebekah Piper, in her article “Navigating Black Identity Development,” recommends having an instructional framework that teachers can follow, master, and deliver to students—not a scripted, one-size-fits-all curriculum that can limit differentiation and diversity.

Consistency and structure provide tools for stopping academic underperformance before it starts. Teachers must be taught to review the data, look for skill gaps daily, and prepare for the next day based on what their students did not understand the day before. Consider this example of a framework that can yield success:

Lesson Plan Format

  1. Do now—immediate bell ringer connected to the lesson
  2. Misconceptions—needs additional questions answered
  3. Essential question—large over­arching question guiding the lesson
  4. Mini lesson—student-friendly language, a minimum of three total participation techniques
  5. Work period—student practice time
  6. Closure—connects to the emotional intelligence quotient (EQ); higher level to produce deeper thought above the depth of the EQ
  7. Exit ticket
  8. Homework—continue to enforce your school’s standard policy

Adapting to Diversity

Social-emotional needs, grading, and policies need to be implemented that are “return-from-COVID-19-friendly” with high expectations for all. Students will need daily support from an advisory program—a model that has students checking in with their advisory teachers daily. The more educators can understand the students’ cultures, the more they can build a social-emotional support celebrating diverse learners. A true advisory model enables teachers to build relationships with students so that they act as a point of contact for issues that might arise. The advisory teachers become the “parent away from the parent,” while the students are in school.

When it comes to grading, consider a Zeros Aren’t Permitted (ZAP) program built into the teachers’ school day by shaving off five minutes from each period and adding an extra period at the end of the day. ZAP is an intervention program placing students in a class by their lowest weekly grade. Students make up work, differentiate instruction, and retake tests or take make-up tests and quizzes. This program recognizes that students have fallen behind because of the pandemic and that they have and will continue to face adverse conditions at home. A ZAP program is proactive instead of reactive.

Grading policies must be adjusted based on the data, specifically looking at past failures by subject and grade level. Build in content and credit recovery to provide ample opportunities for students to improve their learning and grades.

Bottom Line: Build Connections

A model must be developed with high expectations and with a high level of support. Showing up is one of the most important things we can do in our students’ lives; showing up and consistently caring leads to changed behavior. We have to make them believe we will not allow them to fail. Build expectations with students and parents, but more importantly, help them believe they can overcome all obstacles with the type of care you are willing to provide.

Marck E. Abraham, EdD, is the president and CEO of MEA Consultants LLC in Buffalo, NY. Paul Miller, EdD, is the CEO of Urbane Education Alterations, an educational consulting company in Albany, NY. Gabrielle Morquecho, EdD, is the principal of Hutchinson Central Technical High School in Buffalo, NY.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Relationships

Be approachable, accessible, and welcoming to students, staff members, families, and community members. You can cultivate your own relationships with various stakeholders by being visible and interacting with stakeholders on a regular basis. Accessibility enables informal communication that fosters relationships. Actions may include: 

  • Making yourself accessible during key transitions such as arrival, dismissal, and lunch
  • Establishing office hours and encouraging interaction by specifying times that have been explicitly reserved for questions and input
  • Holding “fireside chats” for teachers, staff members, and students to discuss a particular issue of relevance in your school
  • Considering community outreach through parent coffees, presentations to community organizations, and public meetings

Relationships is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.