As education leaders navigate their communities through one of the greatest crises in this nation’s history, it is crucial that they plan for what comes after. For the stakeholders in our education system – students, families, teachers, administrators, school staff — life after the COVID-induced pause on life as-we-know-it will be an exacerbated version of life before. Students who were behind in school before will likely be further behind. Students who experience daily trauma from poverty and racism may have lived through even worse by losing friends or family to the coronavirus-induced illness or losing parents’ income.

COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting communities of color and those living in poverty. Members of the Asian American Pacific Islander community face increased discrimination because of the perpetuated perception that COVID-19 is a “Chinese virus.” In New York City, the virus is twice as deadly for Latinx and Black than for white New Yorkers. In Michigan, African Americans account for about 35 percent of cases and 40 percent of deaths but comprise 14 percent of the population. Similar trends hold for Chicago and New Orleans. This is the result of generations of inequities affecting minoritized communities: limited access to high paying and stable jobs and good health care increase their risk for health conditions like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes. Residents in low-income urban areas also don’t have the privilege to social distance, as they live in concentrated areas and must choose between working in dangerous conditions or losing their jobs.

Students who were already vulnerable before COVID-19 are now exponentially more so.

School and school system leaders play a critical role in devising strategies to create a safety net. At the NYC Leadership Academy, we for years have developed leaders willing and able to take on intractable challenges steeped in bias and inequities. In recent conversations with educational leaders across the country, we have identified four challenges leaders must plan for in the coming months and the critical skills and knowledge they will need to tackle them.

Addressing the inevitable COVID-slide

Before COVID-19, students of color on average had less access to rigorous and engaging learning experiences and to the most qualified teachers. Despite efforts to shift learning into students’ homes, there are students who still lack access to a computer or internet connectivity. Districts are struggling to meet the needs of special education students. And many districts paused live instruction because of security breaches in virtual communication platforms. Unless students have a parent at home with the time and tools to teach, the rigor and engagement of remote learning will be extremely limited. That means K-12 students across the country stand to lose up to 3 months of learning this school year. That’s like a summer vacation, which research has told us can cause some students’ learning to slide backward. In fact, researchers at NWEA are already predicting that the “COVID-slide” could be much worse than the melt you see in a typical summer.

To address these challenges, leaders need to strategically plan. Identify data you will collect and analyze to understand how students were doing before school closures, how they are doing now, and which students will need interventions this summer or fall. Think beyond tests and work with teacher teams to track which standards students missed learning and determine how those gaps can be spiraled into the next level standards and curriculum. Keep in mind that the need will likely be greater than previous years while budgets and staffing could be more limited. Prioritize the most vulnerable students in need of the greatest support.

Counsel whole child, whole adult

Young people, particularly those in communities disproportionately affected by the virus, are suffering trauma. Students who have experienced trauma are more likely to fail standardized tests, be referred for special education, and drop out of high school, researcher Susan Craig has found. School and system leaders must be prepared to counsel students, families and teachers through the aftershocks of COVID-19 trauma. They can build strong teams of counselors; train teachers to recognize and support trauma victims by looking for signs like moodiness or inattentiveness; and develop individualized support plans for children and support staff working with trauma victims. While we challenge our teams to understand others’ pain, they will have experienced deep pain of their own. Leaders can support families by making available culturally competent counselors and translators as needed, and sharing information on psychological, health and legal resources. Finally, identify a variety of data points to measure the progress of this work.

Activate lessons from remote learning

There will be many lessons to learn from remote learning. It offers an opportunity to support teachings in reflecting on teaching strategies that were not working before, and to innovate and improve. Solicit feedback through surveys and small group remote discussions with teachers, students, and parents and guardians to determine which aspects of remote learning did and did not work, and why. How can successes translate back into the classroom? Which pieces of effective classroom instruction did not translate remotely, and why? Assess student learning in a variety of ways to determine which students thrived or struggled, and why.

Reinforce the value of teaching

Parents and guardians are seeing firsthand the hard work and planning that goes into teaching and the value teachers add to children’s lives. School and school system leaders can capitalize on this realization and double down on communicating teacher value across communities and states, sending a strong message to policymakers. Whether homeschooling experiences inspire a new generation of teachers remains to be seen, but it has certainly become clearer how challenging it is to teach in ways that keep every child engaged and help them develop new and much-needed skills.

Eventually we will return to school buildings, and when we do, educators will face challenges exponentially greater than what was before. As leaders address the current remote learning challenges, we must plan for the added support our students and teachers will need. That is the only way we can prevent the COVID-slide from taking our young people right off a cliff and to instead do right by our families and communities.