The Unique Obstacles of Virtual Education and Social Emotional Learning in Low-Income Areas

The COVID-19 pandemic has created sudden and long-lasting challenges in educational settings across the United States. For schools implementing supplementary programs to prevent substance use and other risky behaviors, these challenges have been particularly intensified. Disruptions caused by major global events, school closures and transitions to virtual environments have compromised the quality of education being delivered to students across the country and have been shown to negatively impact emotional well-being of children more broadly (Dorn, Hancock, Sarakatsannis & Viruleg, 2020). Such impacts will exacerbate the economic and academic stressors of those who come from low socioeconomic status households (Van Lancker & Parolin, 2020).

Through funding from the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation (RMFF), RTI is evaluating Prevention Matters, a 4-year initiative aimed at helping schools in Marion County, Indiana identify and sustain substance use prevention programming.  Most of the programs in this initiative include a critical component of teaching social emotional learning (SEL), which equips students with the skills to manage their feelings and engage in positive relationship-building and responsible decision-making. Through RTI’s evaluation activities, RTI staff have learned how schools are adjusting their prevention programming to meet students’ needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unique Challenges of Implementing Prevention Programming During COVID-19

Indianapolis’s Ignite Achievement Academy (IAA) exemplifies the unique dynamics of implementing prevention programming during a pandemic. Operating since 2017, IAA received funding from RMFF in 2018 to implement Second Step, an evidence-based SEL program aimed at teaching students prosocial skills and emotional regulation techniques. At the outset of their grant, IAA was able to seamlessly integrate its foundation-funded programming into the school’s pre-existing prevention initiatives, such as daily meditation.

IAA serves more than 500 students in grades K-6 living in a low-income, majority-black Indianapolis zip code. As the school began to face the challenges created by COVID-19, the country simultaneously became riddled with social unrest related to racial strife, police brutality and structural inequalities. The visibility and pointed focus on these issues has exacerbated the difficulties faced by IAA’s primarily minority population and created a debilitating dilemma: the pandemic has made it more difficult for schools to successfully teach social-emotional skills in a time when there is a great need for students to learn and use them.

IAA was founded on the belief that “…if we don’t take care of [students’] social needs, then they can’t learn,” according to principal and grant director Jessica English. Despite this strong system of support, English highlighted that IAA students and administrators experienced three main challenges in the wake of COVID-19—1) lack of access to necessary technologies and broadband internet; 2) delayed acquisition of critical social-emotional skills; and 3) struggles with compassion fatigue from school staff. These challenges are not unique to IAA; instead, initial feedback from other schools serving students from low socioeconomic status households throughout the world show that they are also faced with these challenges (Winthrop, 2020; Saavedra, 2020; “Education During COVID-19”, 2020).

Low Income Students Face Lack of Access to Technology and Broadband Internet

“[Our school boundary is within] a low-income community, so many of our scholars don’t have internet and don’t have access to computers,” English said. Although all IAA students live in an urban area where computers and internet connection are widely available, most continue to lack access to these tools which are needed to thrive in virtual-learning environments.

National statistics about digital access echo the experiences of IAA students. According to the Pew Research Center, 35% of lower-income American households with school-age children did not have access to broadband internet in their homes. Likewise, 24% of lower-income teens lack reliable access to a computer in the home. These technology gaps disproportionally impact children in black and Hispanic households (Auxier & Anderson, 2020).

Given the competing demands they face, it can be difficult for schools to address these digital gaps. Many schools prioritized addressing the basic needs of students, such as combatting food insecurity created by current economic conditions. IAA initially focused on feeding its students and their families before they attempted to tackle students’ limited access to technology. Still, English shared that teachers were able create, print, and mail learning packets to students’ homes to partially overcome the digital divide in the Spring of 2020. Teachers also held check-in calls with students, where they used SEL rubrics to guide them through discussions about how they were coping during the pandemic.

Delayed Acquisition of Critical Social-Emotional Skillsets During COVID-19

Offering students a safe space to live and learn has been a challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially because of its disruptions to the delivery of prevention programming. A majority of students who attend IAA “…experience a lot of trauma from death to drugs…,” English said. “School has been their safe place … a place of structure and a place of stability,” which was abruptly removed from students’ lives when the mayor of Indianapolis ordered all Marion County school buildings to be closed on March 12.

A large piece of this sense of security can be tied to the SEL curricula that students receive. SEL equips students with the tools to make sense of adverse circumstances in and out of school. Living in areas where community violence and substance misuse are normalized increases the likelihood of anxiety, depression, and poor academic performance in children (SAMHSA, 2019; Carlson, 2019). These adverse conditions also serve as risk factors for long-term negative outcomes, such as increased odds of experiencing unemployment, chronic stress, and incarceration (Chittleborough et al., 2006; Merkin et al, 2014; Rabuy & Kopf 2015).

With the establishment of virtual learning, the delivery of SEL activities at IAA was drastically impacted because of a structural inability to implement prevention programming in the way it was originally intended to be—in person. IAA and schools across the country were no longer able to lead interactive, face-to-face activities to help students engage with one another and develop meaningful coping strategies. This necessitated abrupt adaptations to program delivery in an attempt to teach SEL remotely, which often left teachers scrambling to figure out the most appropriate means of communicating SEL content to their students.

Struggles with Compassion Fatigue from School Staff

School staff at IAA onboard to their roles as teachers and administrators with a distinct set of expectations. “I think we serve in a unique community, and it takes a lot to be a teacher in our school,” English said. Teachers at IAA often face compassion fatigue (also known as secondary traumatic stress), resulting from hearing stories of and working closely with students who have experienced trauma firsthand (Baicker, 2020; Hill, 2011).  As English describes, “…it’s the most challenging job that many of our educators have had. Trauma is real, even amongst our staff. And if you're not socially or emotionally able to handle it, it can be a very difficult job.”

Compassion fatigue commonly occurs among professionals who regularly interact with individuals coping with traumatic experiences. Working in low-resource areas where students frequently experience trauma requires that teachers have an extremely high level of resilience and commitment, which means that schools in such environments often experience issues with staff retention and prevention programming (Abraham-Cook, 2012).

To this point, English shared that IAA’s commitment to SEL extends beyond their students to their teachers as well. IAA implements restorative practices for their staff, such as staff circles and restorative meeting activities, to create an open space for discussion about staff responsibilities and feelings in day-to-day operations. As an additional support to their staff, IAA implements HeartMath, a system that empowers participants in monitoring their emotions to better manage stress and develop resilience. The Head of School at IAA, Shy-Quon Ely II, is a certified facilitator of this system, and regularly shares strategies with staff to build synergies between physical, mental, and emotional wellness.

Still, given the additional stressors of COVID-19 and elevated discourse surrounding race-based violence in the United States, teachers at IAA and across the country are particularly distressed as they tend to students’ needs.  Such emotional strain may lead to increased staff turnover in schools serving students who come from low socioeconomic households. Such turnover means that the knowledge and experiences of teachers who have previously implemented prevention programming is lost, leading to increased workloads for current teachers or requiring that additional resources be invested to train new teachers in prevention programming. IAA has had four teachers leave their positions during this school year and remains aware of the possibility of further turnover moving forward.

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As the impact of COVID-19 continues into another academic year, concerns surrounding students’ access to digital technology, prevention programming delivery, and compassion fatigue must be addressed to improve outcomes for students and teachers in low-income areas. Moreover, the need for effective SEL instruction is crucial for students who regularly face adverse experiences, especially in this current historical moment. School leadership and prevention program developers need to identify appropriate steps to ensure that all students have equitable educational and social-emotional learning opportunities, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, or geographic location. These steps may include:

  • considering partnerships with local social service organizations or religious institutions to address students’ basic needs;
  • collaborating with internet providers who may offer free or discounted WiFi and computers for low-income households to alleviate technological disparities;
  • working with researchers and program developers to create guidelines that lead to the effective and standardized delivery of SEL instruction remotely; and
  • allocating resources toward mental health services for teachers experiencing compassion fatigue and students facing adverse life experiences.

For more information on SEL and the influence the practice can have on student safety and wellbeing, download RTI’s free white paper, Social and Emotional Learning: A Mindset for School Safety and Student Security.

Ignite Achievement Academy contributed to this blog post.