Responding to a crisis with integrated student support – a research article

research articleIn the middle of the pandemic, schools with systems of integrated student support (ISS) had an advantage. They were able to pivot to meet the rapidly changing needs of students and families.

A newly released research article — “Leveraging Integrated Student Support to Identify and Address COVID-19-Related Needs for Students, Families, and Teachers” — explains how one evidence-based ISS system, City Connects, has helped schools meet students’ needs. 

A key theme: systemic support matters. 

The research draws on several sources: surveys of City Connects Coordinators conducted in the spring of 2020 in 94 schools across six states; a database of the student services these coordinators provided; and on coordinators’ estimates of the three most common challenges schools faced when they were closed.

Published by AERA Open, the article was written by Courtney Pollack, former Senior Researcher on City Connects Data and Evaluation Team, and now a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a researcher at MIT; Maria Theodorakakis, Senior Manager of Clinical Practice and Research; and Mary Walsh, City Connects’ Executive Director. 

As the article notes, the pandemic-related school closures affected 55.1 million students. And schools raced to help students, providing everything from meals to laptops to online classes. 

Comments from coordinators explain some of the needs, including

• “We still have families that no provider has been able to get in touch with yet and there are language barriers as well.”

• “This week, I have had many families report to staff that they are worried about how they are going to pay rent/housing issues,” and

• “I think the theme of the past week has definitely been students wanting social engagement while burning out on distance learning.” 

The article also points out how students’ and families’ needs are interwoven across the four domains – academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family — that City Connects tracks. For example: “A family’s need for translation support could affect their needs for rental relief or housing assistance. A family’s need related to fear of catching COVID-19 could affect their ability to get food support.”

For many schools, meeting these needs was demanding, the article says, because “student support in schools has historically been fragmented, often focusing only on high-needs students, and lacking the required infrastructure, data tracking, and resources.” 

“These limitations hinder schools’ abilities to systematically understand, anticipate, and respond to student needs.” 

In stark contrast, schools implementing City Connects had the opposite experience. These schools quickly identified and met needs using the existing core practices of City Connects and by creating new systems. 

As the coordinators explain:

• “I have been contacting all of our homeless and highly mobile families weekly to address any service they could directly benefit from.”

• “Additionally, I have been in communication with other community resources and checking in with how they are servicing the students, and how we can support them further,” and

• “Have been hosting social emotional Zooms with students in small groups to decrease the sense of isolation and allow more processing of not returning to school this year.”

The article also points to other potential benefits City Connects may have had during the early part of the pandemic, among them:

• “The ability to draw on established processes may additionally reduce reliance on outside (e.g., state) guidance, which may fall short of supporting the whole child.”

• “Existing relationships between coordinators, students, and families may have promoted an effective response. Coordinators leveraged trusted relationships to continue one-on-one check-ins, small group socioemotional learning sessions, and meaningfully connect with parents,” and

• “Existing relationships may have prompted teachers to seek direct support from coordinators to vent and discuss self-care. This may lessen feelings of teacher burnout, which in turn may support student learning.” 

In its conclusion, the article says that systems of integrated student support that existed before the pandemic helped schools persevere during the pandemic. 

Looking ahead, the article also envisions a brighter future, saying: 

“We hope that, post-pandemic, ISS will likewise support education-as-reimagined to more equitably educate the whole child.” 

To learn more, please read the article.

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