Poverty, Student Learning, and Coronavirus

It seems eons ago when I presented a session in early March on Poverty and the Brain to 200 P-12 educators at a small city school district in Upstate New York. The district had a relatively high economically-disadvantaged student population of 46%, and a students with disability population of 21%. My presentation focused on two questions: 1) How does poverty impact student learning?, and 2) What are the instructional implications for students from poverty? Reflecting back with a full blown pandemic now underway, it is heartbreaking to imagine how our most needy students and families will emerge when “normalcy” returns. Fractured is one way to envision the impacts. Fractured in spirit. Fractured in body. Fractured in mind. Poverty takes a terrible toll on student learning, particularly during periods of self-isolation.fractured-ice

Early in the session I asked the group to individually, and then with a partner, consider how poverty impacts student learning. We followed that with a whole group conversation. The same was done for instructional implications. Notes were recorded (see below)

The educators understood first hand poverty’s impacts. But what about now in the Covid-19 pandemic world? What impacts have been exacerbated through stay at home measures, including online learning, to reduce the spread and “flatten the curve”?  I  circled items as ones we all should find especially concerning at this time. How can children learn when their basic needs for shelter, food,….are not being met, or where the home environment lacks structure, putting students in a self-preservation mode and lacking any motivation for learning? 

The teachers’ thoughts on instructional implications for children with poverty were rightfully focused on classroom environment and relationships, now made more pressing with children at home, away from classmates and teachers. Some of our most needy students are in home environments stressed by financial worries, joblessness, and lack of food. Building community and loving those students is a challenge when interactions are virtual, assuming our most needy even have the necessary technology and broadband for face to face virtual communications. And of course, the consistency and structure implications are completely out the window. The pandemic we find ourselves is real, and smart teachers will use the current times to bring relevance into their lessons. And yes, there will be some advocation for our students, but not what could exist back in school.

These are trying times for society, particularly for those on the front lines (health workers, public safety personnel, grocers, farmers….). For those in education, we must be particularly mindful for the most at-risk students and families who will surely exit self containment at a greater disadvantage than when entered. 

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