Start the School Year With Purpose. Here Are 5 Priorities

The challenges keep coming, but we know how to make school better for students and teachers

By Tyrone C. Howard
August 12, 2022
Originally featured on Education Week


Tyrone C. Howard is a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the director of the university’s Center for the Transformation of Schools and the Pritzker Center for Strengthening Children and Families. He is also the president-elect of the American Educational Research Association.

The starts of the past two academic years were full of questions, bound with uncertainty, and cloaked in fear and worry. We are learning how to live with COVID-19, and so the beginning of this year has a bit more predictability.

Nonetheless, questions and challenges remain. COVID has affected us all, yet we have not all been affected in the same way. For several years now, we have seen data that reveal how groups already vulnerable before the pandemic (e.g., students from poor families, students of color, students with disabilities, English-language learners) suffered even more than others over the past two and a half years. Almost every educator would agree that there is lots of work to be done as we deal with the effects of COVID.

Below are five pressing issues that should be at the top of mind as we head into the new school year.

1. Students are still struggling academically and emotionally

By now, it’s well documented that the pandemic has contributed to notable academic lag for many students. Schools need to be intentional and consistent about providing ongoing tutoring, academic enrichment, after-school supports, and intense intervention to prevent gaps from widening. At the same time, it is clear that many students are still struggling socially and emotionally. The severity of loss, disconnection from adults and peers, and removal from normalcy will affect students for years.

Schools must make sure that they are providing counseling services, social work supports, behavioral specialists, and therapeutic interventions. In many ways, our students are still not well.

2. Adults are still struggling, too

Schools across the nation continue to see staff shortages, which have major implications for school quality and educator well-being. Adults also have struggled over the last few years. Many have reported dissatisfaction with their jobs, seeing little joy in what they do, and many have left the profession. Growing numbers of teachers report that the challenges that many students face have made their jobs even more exhausting.

Schools need to be places where students laugh, learn, explore, talk, think, create, imagine, dream, and feel good about themselves and others.

Districts must encourage teachers to take mental health days, should bring in wellness counselors for adults, and should remind staff about their collectively bargained or otherwise legally protected health benefits. Most importantly, leaders should focus on taking unnecessary tasks off the plates of teachers because their plates are beyond full.

3. Enrollment is dropping

A number of reports have demonstrated how a confluence of factors such as declining birthrates, decreases in immigration, the increase of home schooling, and the large number of students who never returned to school after dropping out during the pandemic has led to notable decreases in enrollment. Enrollment in the country’s K-12 public schools has declined nationally—dropping roughly 3 percent during the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The decreases matter because they are directly correlated to school funding. As COVID-relief funding expires in the next two years, districts will be facing difficult decisions about possible staff reductions, elimination of programs, and the ending of targeted services and supports.

District leaders must begin to plan now for this and other fiscal realities across a two- to three-year window. Unfortunately, enrollment drops will lead to difficult conversations about possible school closures.

4. Politics remain in our schools

As much as COVID has been the big challenge that the nation has faced the past two years, it has not been the only issue. Districts are dealing with the political nature of many issues they must sort out. Debates are occurring around banned books, critical race theory, the overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision, vaccinations and masks, LGBTQ+ rights, and a divisive political climate. Teachers surveyed by The 74 education-focused news site reported increases in students’ use of racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic language, as more students (and parents) have become more confrontational.

Many teachers are unprepared to deal with the contentiousness. It is imperative that districts work alongside equity experts to help staff acquire the knowledge, skills, and strategies needed in today’s schools.

5. Schools need more joy

At a time of economic volatility and rising costs, many families are struggling. Schools can be, and need to be, spaces that are replete with joy for students. We discovered during the school closures of 2021 just how important schools are to the holistic development of young people. Schools need to be places where students laugh, learn, explore, talk, think, create, imagine, dream, and feel good about themselves and others.

Unfortunately for too many students, schools are harmful and painful spaces that place a priority on one thing—testing. Teachers and administrators must remember that relationships are foundational to learning. Caring adults make an incredible and often lifelong impact on young people. The first week of school for all teachers should be focused on getting to know students, not jumping into content.

In this current moment, schools can be a catalyst for collective healing. We have been through a lot as a nation. Young people have often been our salvation. Their excitement and joy are often infectious. Young people are our hope and inspiration for a better tomorrow. Their innocence, wisdom, and courage to dare to be whole in the midst of adversity is what our nation needs to lean on right now.

Let us all be collectively committed to building the types of schools that our students so desperately deserve. Thank you to everyone who is a part of our school communities: students, parents and caregivers, superintendents, administrators, teachers, support staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, nurses, coaches, counselors. You matter! You make a difference. Here’s to a great academic year.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2022 edition of Education Week as A Purposeful Start: Priorities for the New School Year