Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to K-12 Dive about concerns surrounding the safety and well-being of students as they return to the classroom following a year of living through COVID-19. In addition to pandemic-related stressors, students have witnessed enormous racial and political upheaval, creating “a swirl of different variables that make me really worried,” Astor said. “Kids are coming in with suitcases of really horrible experiences.” Bracing for an increase in threats of violence and self-harm, many school administrators have prioritized physical and mental health rather than nosediving into academic recovery. Astor called on principals to create a welcoming place for students and a supportive environment for teachers. “At least for this year, the next year and the year after, our school is not only about academic achievement,” he said. “We are going to go out of our way to [build] social-emotional friendships, so that our school becomes the ideal of what we hope society to be.”
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored a Journal of School Health commentary on the importance of factoring in structural racism when developing strategies to prevent school violence. “Microaggressions and bullying associated with skin color can result in a pathway of increased alienation from and decreased engagement in school, both of which can increase the probability of harm to self and others,” wrote Astor and co-author Marc A. Zimmerman of the University of Michigan. Unconscious biases may surface among staff making threat assessments as well as among teachers who send implicit messages that reduce academic motivation among Black, Latino, Native and immigrant students. Economically disadvantaged campuses typically have fewer resources for social and emotional learning, relying instead on target-hardening strategies such as metal detectors and school safety officers — a signal that schools are not a welcoming place. “It is time we pay particular attention to the role racism plays in creating unsafe learning environments for our children,” the authors wrote.
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored an article for School Psychology Review that delineates the need for new studies on how opportunity structures — factors such as geographic location, gender, race, religion, nationality, ethnicity and family background — influence and shape patterns that impact school safety, school climate and bullying. The concept of opportunity structures has historically been used to study equity in the labor market. In education, it has been used to describe systemic racism in educational inequality. The authors apply school-centered ecological theory as a conceptual framework that links opportunity structures and school safety. They recommend further research on communities and families, creating positive school cultures and climates, and different types of educator bias that restrict opportunities and result in less safe environments. Astor, the Crump Professor of Social Welfare at UCLA Luskin, also holds an appointment with the UCLA School of Education and Information Studies. His work examines the role of the physical, social-organizational and cultural contexts in schools related to different kinds of bullying and school violence, including sexual harassment, cyberbullying, discrimination hate acts, school fights, emotional abuse, weapon use and teacher-child violence. Astor’s co-authors are Pedro Noguera, dean of USC’s Rossier School of Education; Temple University Associate Professor Edward Fergus; University of Pennsylvania Professor Vivian L. Gadsden; and Rami Benbenishty, professor emeritus at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. — Joanie Harmon
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor co-authored a paper in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research about the importance of including teachers and staff in discussions of school climate and student risk. The paper, “School Staff Members in California: How Perceptions of School Climate are Related to Perceptions of Student Risk and Well-Being,” highlighted the perspectives of school staff members who help shape the environment of their schools. Research has shown that a positive school climate is associated with improved academic achievement and social and emotional outcomes for students. According to Astor and co-authors Gordon Capp and Tamika Gilreath, the current literature on school climate largely overlooks the perspectives of school staff members. They argue that in order to accurately understand school climate and how it influences all school constituents, school climate models need to include viewpoints of school staff members. The team used survey data from the 2013 California School Climate Survey, which included responses from 54,000 teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses, social workers and other school staff members. The researchers used regression models to examine the relationship between school climate and student outcomes. Their results support a staff-focused model of school climate, and they found an increased need for training and support associated with higher levels of student risk, bullying and violence. Astor’s team encouraged school stakeholders to pay greater attention to staff perceptions and experiences before implementing interventions to improve school climate. — Zoe Day
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to EdSource for an article on the steep drop in reports of child abuse in California since the COVID-19 pandemic closed school campuses. With teachers no longer seeing students in person in most parts of the state, advocates say thousands of cases of child abuse may be going unreported, the article noted. In a recent survey of school social workers, 59% said they felt the pandemic is compounding child abuse and neglect, at least to a moderate degree. Astor, part of the research team that conducted the survey, said that schools, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, must become community hubs where families can get food, health care, mental health services, and job and housing resources. “Everyone needs to be shifting their roles right now because the pandemic isn’t going away any time soon,” Astor said. “If we help these families, they won’t forget. They’ll remember that school can uplift you.”
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor appeared at a congressional briefing focused on how social workers can help provide for the safety and educational achievement of students in light of calls to remove police from public schools. Many U.S. schools are patrolled by safety officers yet have no counselors, nurses or social workers on staff, adding to inequities that are deeply felt by Black, Latino, Native American and rural communities, Astor said. He called for a holistic national plan that re-envisions the role of schools in providing key social services to families struggling to feed, house and provide health care to their children. “There are needs at a mass scale that we probably haven’t seen in our country since the Great Depression,” said Astor, citing a recent policy brief he co-authored. Astor urged policymakers, education professionals, social workers and scholars to work together on a master plan that considers these core questions: “What do want our schools to look like in our country? What kind of democracy do we want to have? Should the zip code of a child dictate the kind of resources and opportunities they have?” The Sept. 23 online briefing was sponsored by a broad coalition of national social work organizations in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus, chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee of California. “We’ve got to bring the power of social work back to the schools,” Lee said during the briefing. “It is a matter of justice, and social workers are known for fighting for justice for everyone, especially our children.”
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor penned a commentary for CNN calling for a national plan of action to address the increase in child hunger in the wake of COVID-19. Astor, who recently published a research brief on social workers’ recommendations for reopening schools this fall, wrote that many students’ basic needs – such as food, housing and mental health – are not being adequately addressed. “Students are hungry today,” he wrote. “They cannot wait to eat only after a vaccine is found and distributed.” Pre-pandemic, approximately 5 billion free or reduced-price lunches were served to students across the country each year. Now, collective national action is urgently needed to make sure these schoolchildren do not go hungry, Astor argued. He called for expanded government funding, a public-private collaboration among food banks and food industry partners, and a redeployment of school police forces to reconnect the school and community in a spirit of care rather than feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.
Education Week spoke to Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor about ways school systems can support students struggling with toxic stress. A nationwide survey of school social workers conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic found “profound, immediate, urgent needs” related to health, housing, food instability and other issues. Astor, who co-authored the study, said many schoolchildren dealing with toxic stress will need a wide range of services that go beyond basic trauma-sensitive instruction, which focuses on building up social and emotional skills in addition to academics. “To do a trauma-informed-care school where everybody’s focused on great interactions, but 80% of your kids are hungry, doesn’t make sense,” Astor said. Schools, government agencies and community groups must work together to provide a multi-tiered system of academic, social and basic living supports, “not in a crisis mode … but for the long-term, like you would in a war,” Astor said.
The blog of the National Association of Social Workers spotlighted a report, co-authored by Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor, on the wide-ranging needs of schoolchildren as virtual learning resumes amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. A high proportion of students, especially from low-income families, are experiencing hunger, housing instability, health and mental health issues, and other challenges, according to the report, which drew its findings from a large-scale survey of school social workers around the country. These social workers play a key role in assessing students’ mental health and social care needs and connecting them with vital community resources, the article noted. The report called for a coordinated and comprehensive response from federal and state policymakers and national educational leaders to address the needs of students during the crisis. Astor co-authored the report with scholars from Loyola University Chicago, Cal State Fullerton, Hebrew University and UCLA.
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.