Harm to our nation’s most vulnerable children is likely to extend far beyond missed learning when classes went remote last spring. New evidence reveals that staggering numbers of students could fall months to a full year behind, be locked out of experiential science learning and drop out of school.

With the real threat of racial disparity and despair among marginalized communities increasing exponentially, educators and advocates across sectors are rallying to make equity the center of plans for next school year and beyond.

Evidence foreshadows increased learning loss and drop-out rate

Up to 1.1 million ninth-to-11th graders could drop out of high school as a result of the novel coronavirus and associated school closures, estimate authors of a McKinsey report that examined possible long-term damage of the pandemic on low-income, Black, and Latinx students. They took into account drop-out rates following recent natural disasters and noted that COVID-19 on a grander scale has likewise disrupted key social and academic supports that help keep vulnerable students in school.

In terms of learning loss, they estimate that the achievement gap for Black students could increase by 10.3 months, for Latinx students by 9.2 months, and for low-income students by more than a year. This is above and beyond the achievement gap McKinsey has been analyzing since 2009 that shows the average Black or Hispanic student remains roughly two years behind the average white one.

“These effects — learning loss and higher dropout rates — are not likely to be temporary shocks easily erased in the next academic year. On the contrary, we believe that they may translate into long-term harm for individuals and society,” write the authors.

When students need it most, vital outdoor education is threatened

Along with increasing disparity in formal K-12 education, the crippling effect of COVID 19-related closures on institutions in the nonformal education sector like museums will disproportionality impact children in these same marginalized communities.

UC Berkeley photo courtesy of Lawrence Hall of Science

By year end, more than 11 million students stand to lose access to outdoor science programs from organizations that provide environmental literacy, conservation, youth development, community building, social-emotional learning, career and job skill development, and environmental justice, according to a study conducted by the Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS) at the University of California, Berkeley. Their survey of nearly 1,000 nonprofit and/or public/governmental organizations from across the country showed approximately 4 million children already missed out on these formative programs as of May 2020.

Program leaders surveyed estimate that close to 60% of the youth impacted by COVID-19 cancellations qualify for free or reduced-price meals, are English learners, or come from other marginalized communities.

LHS and partners — the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE), the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI), and Ten Strands — outline benefits of different types of outdoor and environmental experiences in the study policy brief. These include helping students develop content knowledge and skill as well as a positive short- and long-term attitude toward school which indicates the significant role outdoor education plays in engaging students and keeping them in school.

UC Berkeley photo courtesy of Lawrence Hall of Science

In the past decade, unlike the learning gap which McKinsey reports has not improved significantly, there has been progress in removing systemic barriers that prevented low-income students and students of color from benefiting from environmental and outdoor science education through a concerted effort to increase program capacity.

Tragically, COVID 19-related closures and financial losses now threaten to undo these gains. Environmental and outdoor science education programs that manage to reopen may be forced to rely on paying customers and halt or at best put off subsidized programming, scholarships, fee waivers, transportation grants and community partnerships, leading once again to the exclusion of marginalized communities, explains Craig Strang, LHS associate director.

LHS and its partners are challenging organizations to do something radically different.

“Why not privilege those kids who are being hammered by COVID-19? Kids whose communities are getting sick and dying at a much higher rate, who had the worst learning experience last spring when it was 100% remote and they didn't have a device, who live in neighborhoods that don’t have access to open spaces and parks and who are most at risk in the learning environment being planned for the fall,” suggests Strang.

Taking this bold action would entail organizations and philanthropic foundations rethinking what dictates success for program funding decisions — that perhaps serving more vulnerable communities first is more valuable than reaching larger quantities of people.

Partnering to design a “back-to-school” with equity at the center

Similarly, LHS is encouraging K-12 schools and districts to put equity at the center as they work to reinitiate classes in the fall — and emphasize that online distance learning is not an equitable solution.

“My colleagues at the Lawrence Hall of Science ask if we are designing for the margins, because if a solution will work for the most vulnerable, then it's likely to serve those with relative privilege,” commented Vanessa Carter, environmental literacy content specialist for the San Francisco Unified School District during a June webinar that introduced the National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative co-hosted by Green Schoolyards America, San Mateo County Office of Education, Ten Strands and LHS.

To help schools address the enormous challenge of safe physical distancing, the initiative advocates increasing the healthy space available at schools so students can work outdoors rather than decreasing their time learning at school. The idea somewhat challenges the staggered schedules plan many schools are considering where, in most cases, each half of a class works at school two days and three remotely.

“The best thing for a lot of those vulnerable populations would be to bring kids back to school for in person, face to face learning where they can connect with a caring, skilled adult and spend some time outdoors in fresh air, exploring the natural world, doing their reading or math under a tree instead of sitting at home in front of a screen,” says Strang.

Per the initiative, which recommends schools form partnerships with the nonformal education sector, the caring skilled adult referred to could be one the thousands of recently laid-off outdoor educators. These professionals are comfortable working with groups of kids outside, making them an ideal fit for schools’ temporary staffing needs.

“There are a lot of opportunities to create partnerships and relationships that in the long term might actually benefit both the environmental, outdoor science community and the school system,” says Strang. “If we come together now to kind of prevent each other from going down disastrous pathways, these partnerships are likely to be transformative and carry us into the future.”

Educators and advocates around the country working against the clock

The National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative is gaining momentum. Some early adopter schools, districts and even counties are already committed to moving forward with it. In Washington, D.C., education advocates are referencing the COVID-19 response proposal as they petition for an equity-based return to school for their city.

Meanwhile hundreds of people, including administrators, educators, health professionals and policy makers, are convening in virtual working groups to formulate guidance documents and establish protocols for schools and districts.

“There’s no doubt these initiatives will go forward in some schools and districts, what remains to be seen is how quickly we can go to scale and ultimately how many kids we’re going to be able to create a positive scenario for,” concludes Strang.