Two weeks ago, one of my friends learned two of his students, a pair of brothers, had been shot. One died immediately, and the other was suffering major gun wounds from an incident that took place around 3 p.m. on the Northside of Houston.
I have found myself grieving for those students as if they were my own, for the mother who lost her two sons, and for a world in which these students who would have normally been at school, presumably safe when the incident occurred, were left outside to fall victim to these tragic circumstances.
Due to the unforeseen circumstances of COVID-19, students across the nation are not receiving the consistent support that they typically receive from their schools and communities. No school not only means less academic instruction, it also cancels a variety of supports that are necessary for the survival and productivity of students and families.
Many of the students I’ve taught in Houston come from low-income households; more than one in five residents in the city — higher than the state’s overall numbers — live below the poverty line.
Here in the Fifth Ward, where I teach, that number increases to more than half of the children in Ward 5 living below the poverty line. A majority of the households in the area are single-parent households, and most of these parents and guardians are considered “essential employees.” This means many of our students are left home alone while their parents and guardians work to provide for their basic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, our students are without supervision for long periods of time each day.
We are working to find solutions to issues around childcare, food insecurity, maintaining a sense of community, providing structure for students, monitoring student safety and security, addressing technology gaps and offering counseling to our parents and students as they navigate these trying times. These supports are part of the reason our students come to school daily.
Still, the amount of time these students are not spending in school is negatively impacting them in numerous ways. At the same time, while prioritizing student academic growth, the city’s public charter schools, which serve disproportionate numbers of low-income students, are working hard to serve students, families, and communities in different ways.
School closures and the lack of support are putting low-income students at more of a disadvantage and risk than ever before. More specifically, the lack of structure, safety, and security leaves open an opportunity for students to fall victim to the circumstances of their environment. The city of Houston is classified as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, and has one of the highest crime rates in America, and more than 98% of communities in Texas.
In response to students’ and families’ high need for support, Yes Prep has been distributing not only meals, but also care packages to families in need. The district recently received a grant allocated specifically to families that demonstrate a financial need.
All teachers have been assigned 10 to 15 students to personally contact on a weekly basis, and are completing a form that indicates whether the student needs virtual counseling services and/or other major needs. Understanding the district’s emphasis on culture, each grade level has hosted numerous culture building activities to maintain a sense of belonging and community.
Still, it saddens me to know this is our reality. In addition to thinking about lesson plans and distance schooling to make sure my students are still learning, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about their well-being. I do think we can overcome these trying times together, though. And I am thankful for the efforts of my school and many of the other public charter schools in the city taking a proactive approach to making sure student needs are met.
–Byron Hannah, educator, Yes Prep’s Fifth Ward Campus