A research brief calling for a coordinated national plan to guide schools as they reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, co-authored by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, was highlighted on the blog of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. “There is absolute consensus that children need to be in school,” the blog’s author noted. “Tragically, this year countless families and children will experience unimaginable trauma because of all the uncertainty that accompanies a relentless pandemic.” The research brief from social welfare scholars at UCLA, Loyola University Chicago, Cal State Fullerton and Hebrew University identified concerns held by 1,275 school social workers from across the country. “We need a Manhattan Project-style initiative that pulls together all relevant professions — educators, administrators, school psychologists, counselors, social workers, nurses and other health professionals — to create strategic plans for the upcoming school year,” the scholars concluded.
By Mary Braswell
As school districts nationwide grapple with how and when to safely reopen in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey of 1,275 social workers across the United States shows the immensity of the challenge ahead.
The results of the survey, conducted by UCLA and research partners from Loyola University Chicago, Cal State Fullerton and Hebrew University, were published today in a research brief that calls on elected officials and other leaders to act quickly and invest heavily to bolster the nation’s schools.
In addition to concerns about online learning platforms and physical distancing protocols, the school social workers reported that many students and their families are struggling with their most basic needs during the COVID-19 era.
“They’re reporting overwhelming numbers of students who don’t have food, who don’t have stable housing or health services, whose families are suffering,” said the study’s co-author, Ron Avi Astor, a professor of social welfare at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs who also has a faculty appointment at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
“The national dialogue on reopening schools is not focused on this right now, but the social workers are telling us loud and clear that meeting basic human needs for a large number of students is the big issue schools face in the fall.”
The social workers who responded to the survey work with students from preschool to 12th grade, mostly in low-income and minority communities. Serving on the front lines in the most underserved schools, the social workers are uniquely equipped to identify the students’ social, mental health and physical needs — and to help address them once states and schools enter into a recovery phase, he said.
As one social worker who participated in the study noted, “Creating equitable education isn’t about checking off to-do lists. It’s about getting into the work of getting to know the needs of the community and meeting them where they are.”
The brief calls for the creation of a national rapid-response team including teachers, administrators, medical professionals, counselors, psychologists and social workers to provide guidance for schools as they weigh in-person, online or hybrid learning models.
“Every school district is reinventing the wheel over and over and over again, and we think it would be wise to have a clear national strategy,” Astor said.
The report also recommends that a national technical assistance center be created to help any school adjust its procedures, if needed.
“The reality around this virus is changing day to day,” Astor said. “We can’t just have one plan at the beginning of the year and wait until the end of the next year to find out it didn’t work.”
The policy recommendations call for the hiring of a massive number of social workers, nurses, psychologists and other professionals in the hardest-hit schools, many of which serve low-income and minority students.
“That’s going to cost money. But the teacher can’t do it alone,” said Astor, who added that state and federal investment is needed to expand support staff in schools that have historically been underfunded.
“If our country has trillions of dollars to bail out large wealthy corporations, we also have enough to create a Marshall Plan-like program to rebuild and provide basic supports to the nation’s students, schools and communities,” he said.
The report’s authors noted that their findings come amid calls for systemic change spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement. “The question of how to reopen and reinvest in schools that serve under-resourced communities and students of color has gained prominence and urgency,” they wrote.
In addition to providing resources and support for mental health, food, housing, transportation and medical services, a team of professionals is needed to locate and reengage the large number of students — up to 30%, according to some reports — who rarely showed up once classrooms went virtual this spring, the report found.
The recommendations are aimed at avoiding a “lost generation” of students, Astor said.
“That would be the epitome of social injustice,” he said. “We need a campaign to bring students who dropped out or disengaged due to systemic inaction back into the fold. We need to show that our schools are not just about sitting in the classroom and learning math or other academic subjects — that we care about their well-being as a whole.
“That’s a very important message for our country to send this generation of students and their families.”
Read the policy brief and technical report authored by Michael S. Kelly of Loyola University Chicago, Ron Avi Astor of UCLA, Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University, Gordon Capp of Cal State Fullerton and Kate R. Watson of UCLA.
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor was featured in an EdSource article discussing the presence of police officers in public schools. Nationwide protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd have prompted a movement to rethink school safety and invest in hiring more counselors and other student support services instead of on-site police officers. “When schools instead invest in a heavy police presence, it can negatively impact school climate,” Astor explained. Police presence in schools has also been highlighted as the beginning of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” with Black and Latino students being arrested and disciplined at higher rates than their peers. “Militarizing and turning schools into things that look like prisons is not healthy for development. It’s not healthy for identity,” Astor concluded.
Professor Ron Avi Astor and Ph.D. student Kate Watson of UCLA Luskin Social Welfare teamed up with Professor Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University to create a set of questionnaires to assess how well teachers, students, parents and others are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. The questionnaires have been widely distributed to social workers, educators and psychologists at no cost. “Schools can respond better to the most pressing needs of their students, teachers and families amid the COVID-19 pandemic by hearing the entire community,” Astor told Ampersand, a publication of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Sample questionnaires, available at these links for teachers, students and parents, may be used in conjunction with abridged versions of two books co-authored by Astor and Benbenishty: “Mapping and Monitoring Bullying and Violence: Building a Safe School Climate” and “Welcoming Practices: Creating Schools That Support Students and Families in Transition.” Astor and Benbenishty will also appear at a free UCLA Luskin Summit webinar on “A New Normal for Schools During the Pandemic” on Monday, May 4, at 9:30 a.m. To register and attend the webinar, visit this link.
Here is Ampersand’s full interview with Astor:
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor was featured in a War Horse article about the high suicide risk of children of military service members. Despite increases in the number of veteran suicides in the last 20 years, very little research has focused on the mental health and well-being of children of service members. Exposure to trauma from a parent’s combat experience, resistance to mental health care and high rates of gun ownership are factors that put military children at higher risk for suicide. Frequent school changes and parental absences can erode their support structures. “The military and the country have an obligation here,” Astor said. “If we’re going to stick with 1% of the population as our fighting force, the least we can do is provide them and their families with support if they’re suicidal.” In 2010, Astor helped launch an initiative to train California teachers to better understand the risk factors unique to military-connected students.
The American Educational Research Association has honored Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor with a Distinguished Research Award for his co-written article on the role of school-level factors in suicidal ideation in California schools, published in the Journal of Pediatrics. The article was co-written with Astor’s colleagues, Rami Benbenishty, professor emeritus at the School of Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Ilan Roziner, professor at the Coller School of Management at Tel Aviv University. Astor holds the Marjorie Crump Chair in Social Welfare and has a joint appointment at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies. He spoke about his research into suicide ideation among California students with the GSEIS publication Ampersand:
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to Education Dive about the importance of recognizing military culture in schools and supporting military children. If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president in November, his wife, Jill Biden, would have a national platform to pursue her work on behalf of children from military families. Astor’s research has found that children of active-duty service members were more likely than non-military-connected peers to carry weapons to school, to drink alcohol or use other substances, and to be the victims of bullying. After working with Jill Biden on a federally funded program to improve school climate and mental health services in military-connected schools, Astor said she understood “the experiences of military kids going from place to place and worrying about their parents.” He said schools should recognize military culture to make children feel more connected and to educate their civilian peers on the contributions of the military.
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored an article in the Conversation discussing the findings of an American Psychological Association task force investigation of violence against teachers. The task force surveyed about 3,000 teachers across the country in 2010 to gauge the scope of the issue. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that only 9% of U.S. teachers recounted being threatened with injury, 80% of those surveyed by the APA said they had personally experienced some form of violence or abuse in the past year. The article noted that the discrepancy in statistics could be attributed to teachers choosing not to report incidents of violence out of fear of jeopardizing their jobs. The task force is now focusing on whether the way schools are managed and their overall cultures contribute to the conditions that lead to teacher assaults.
Professor Ron Avi Astor, who holds a joint appointment with UCLA Luskin Social Welfare and the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award to Israel, where he will study the country’s successful, systemic approach to addressing school safety issues. As a Fulbright Senior Scholar, Astor will conduct research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for his project, “Addressing School Safety at the National Scale, for Each School, and Sustained Over Time: A Two-Decade Historical and Empirical Case Study on the Israeli System of School Safety.” His four-month study tour will begin in March. Astor’s research examines the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of bullying and violence. Israel, he said, has adopted policies and practices that have reduced victimization levels and become an example for many other countries and states. The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s flagship international educational exchange program. The program’s U.S. Scholar awards are made on the basis of academic and professional achievement, as well as a record of leadership and service. Established in 1946 under legislation introduced by the late U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, the program is funded by the U.S. State Department and supported by governments and host institutions in more than 160 countries.