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.
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.