With the back-to-school season underway across the country, now is the time for our community of advocates for education equity to join together and support students, parents, teachers, and faculty in their calls for school environments that are supportive and inclusive, where our students can see themselves reflected in the curriculum and in their staff,  and have high-quality learning opportunities where they can grow.  Unfortunately, not enough universities, colleges, and P-12 schools are culturally affirming and inclusive. And worse yet, the nation is experiencing a coordinated attack on our public schools, particularly when it comes to demands for equity and inclusion.

Like all parents and families, I want my sons to attend schools where they feel safe and supported. I want teachers and families to collaborate on creating supportive and inclusive school environments for my children and their peers. Building relationships with educators in school who, hear, and support students is more important now than ever in the current political environment that looks to diminish a student’s sense of self and belonging.

Building safe, inclusive, and welcoming schools in a time of heightened partisanship will require everyone to put students first in decision-making. It will require support for evidence-based strategies to address unfinished learning and boost student achievement.

During the last three years, our nation’s students have been through setbacks, traumas, worries, and losses — all of which impede healthy growth. Our systems failed too many students before COVID and continue to do so.

Across the country, it was clear that students with the greatest unmet educational needs before the pandemic experienced the most serious barriers to learning during the pandemic: Students of color, students from low-income backgrounds, English learners, students experiencing homelessness, and students with disabilities were the most impacted.

Students had fewer resources before the pandemic, meaning they already had less access to technology, an experienced and diverse teacher workforce, and the supports that research shows makes a difference, like targeted intensive tutoring and expanded learning time. As a result, this year’s NAEP test results revealed a historic decline in reading and math.

Unfortunately, recent actions on the federal and state levels do little to sow the seeds needed during this post-pandemic era to cultivate schooling environments that nurture students to thrive:

  • Supreme Court decisions to eliminate affirmative action and efforts to provide debt relief to college students gutted long held and recent equity advances.
  • Affinity groups and DEI programs at colleges and universities are currently being threatened.
  • Arkansas dropped the AP African American Studies course, but inexplicably will continue to offer AP European History.
  • Continued book bans (and threats of jail time for violators) take direct aim at erasing stories of marginalized communities, forcing some non-compliant school libraries to temporarily close and some unyielding librarians to permanently retire.

Throw in pandemic-related teacher burnout, chronic student absenteeism, and the impact and looming deadline to spend ESSER federal relief funds — all of which have the greatest impact on students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — and the result is an education system that is reeling, with our children facing unprecedented social, emotional, and academic developmental challenges.

Because of this, there is currently a mental health crisis among youth, so fostering students’ social, emotional and academic development (SEAD) is paramount. That’s why this year, Ed Trust is focusing on SEAD and how to create school environments that are welcoming, nurturing, and inclusive. We know that recovery will take years, not months. And it will take fierce advocacy to insist that education systems and institutions plant the seeds so that students can thrive. The science of learning and development tells us that every child has incredible potential and is highly resilient. We won’t know the true impact of the last few years anytime soon, but the actions that we take now will determine our children’s success. And we need to do this now, not just for our student’s sake, but for the sake of our nation’s democracy and future growth.