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A Crucial COVID Lesson: Schools and Communities Need Each Other

Saturday, March 13, is the one year anniversary of our school buildings shuttering as the wave of COVID began crashing through our Bronx and Harlem communities. There are so many decisions, adjustments, and images we can reflect back on from that time, but one moment in particular stands out:

Nevaeh and Noah’s family shared that video with the wider Partnership community last spring just as we all began isolating in our homes, working hard as parents or educators to make a rapid shift to remote learning while dealing the pandemic itself. But for the space of one short video, we became all a part of the same family, dancing ourselves into the resilience we needed and the joy our kids deserve. It is one of hundreds of reminders in the last year that our schools at their best are truly more than classrooms: they are communities who get and give a great deal among students, parents, and educators.

If Americans of every stripe have learned to appreciate one thing in the year since last March 13, it is perhaps this: schools are a major force in our communal lives. It is worth reflecting on the ways in which the last year has highlighted the interdependence of all schools and communities. As we work to get back to normal for children and adults—and to make that normal even better than what we had before the pandemic—it’s going to be helpful to keep the full picture of what schools do in mind.

Here’s a recap of just a few components of how schools and communities interact, in the Partnership Schools’ experiences of the last year—and we encourage others to think of more:

  • Schools provide students crucial community, in addition to education. 

The socialization that happens at schools matters—perhaps more than we appreciated, and certainly more so when other forms of community, like church participation, have a declining influence. While before COVID we may have been preoccupied with how much older children and teens were connecting via screens, we appreciate even more how much being around each other in person matters too.

As the CDC reports, emergency room visits for full-blown mental health crises among children and adolescents increased dramatically as necessary and prolonged isolation continued, even as those same visits for non-mental health reasons dropped. This fits with a Catholic understanding of human nature; as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops state, “the person is not only sacred but social.”

Our Lady Queen of Angels Third Grader Josh plays with his friends, which he says is his favorite part of the school day.
  • Schools sustain communities, in both practical and intangible ways:

Schools sustain working parents—particularly mothers. As the Brookings Institution and others have highlighted, we depend on schools to take care of children while parents work, and the absence of that function has been particularly devastating to women. Brookings indicates that “one out of four women who became unemployed during the pandemic reported the job loss was due to a lack of childcare.” Given that nearly half of women work in low-wage occupations, and over a quarter of American households are headed by single women, it is no stretch to say that working mothers carry much of the U.S. on their backs—and schools are crucial for helping them to bear this load.

Schools catalyze social services. On a good day, schools serve as crucial hubs of information and access to social services, including food assistance. Just like the Partnership’s St. Athanasius School in the Bronx, many schools partner with local authorities and non-profits both to host food distribution events and to refer families to regular assistance. And in turn, community-minded officials like St. Athanasius’ city council member, Rafael Salamanca, Jr., find in our schools nimble, well-embedded partners for knitting together communities and social services.

Within the wider Partnership community, our schools were also able to serve this crucial mediating role between needs and support, as we announced early the creation of an emergency relief fund for families and were able to connect almost seven hundred families to over $1 million in emergency aid for everything from food to medical expenses to funeral costs.

On a bad day, schools’ role in social services means they are primary means of detecting suspected child abuse—and while the increase or decrease of actual child abuse during the pandemic is under debate, the role of schools in looking out for it is standing out all the more during months when they have been less able to do so.

Schools can also help facilitate the creation of informal bonds, bonds that can be truly sustaining for parents navigating both the joys and the stresses of parenting. Whether it’s finding a playgroup that morphs into a source of childcare for a last-minute appointment, getting a chance to ask other parents at dismissal for a new pediatrician, being able to join together in prayer, as our parents have done throughout these challenging months, or simply watching another parent say to their child, “it is time to go now” and knowing you’re not the only one who has to deploy that voice—schools both reflect and create community among adults as well as children.


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A post shared by DominicBFanelli (@stmarkharlem)

  • Schools rely on community bonds to function well.

Those relationships—along with competence and lots of clear communication—have been crucial not only for our schools to reopen for in-person learning but to earn the trust of parents to send their kids back. As districts like Boston and New York are experiencing, even when parents can send their students back in person, many hesitate to do so—and some are clear about the trust issues involved. We’ve understood from well before we reopened in September that any plan we made was utterly dependent on parents who would be watching and listening closely, and that we have to earn their trust every day. Parents like Quarnishia Mosley have honored us with their frankness about how closely they listened, observed, relied on relationships of trust to send their children back to us in person.

That crucial role of trust was present long before COVID, as any classroom teacher or parent will tell you. When parents trust a teacher’s judgment and all are aligned in their expectations of children, even navigating bumps and challenges becomes a welcome collaboration; when that trust is strained, every anecdote a student shares about their day at school, every piece of graded work and tough emotional challenge becomes significantly harder for everyone to navigate.

As we consider all that we have lost and found in the last twelve months, what we at the Partnership prize more than anything is how the communities of our schools have held together—even when we’ve been apart. As nimble Catholic schools in a network, we’ve had the autonomy, support, and obligation to move quickly to adapt so that our schools can still function as vibrant communities, no matter what. As our entire nation looks to we look to what we expect of schools and how we support them as we get back to normal, it is worth considering their community functions as well as their vital academic role.

This post has been updated to reflect the number of families and amount of emergency aid distributed by the Partnership emergency relief fund.