The world is experiencing a series of quakes and tremors caused by a global pandemic. The quakes are the unprecedented shocks and strains we are witnessing in our health, economic, and education systems. Tremors, on the other hand, are far less obvious because their disruptions occur at a much deeper level and during timeframes when the average individual may feel that they have successfully distanced themselves from the more pronounced quake(s). Both earthquakes and tremors have the same cause; both have the potential to create long-lasting damage.
Many within the philanthropic community are concentrating resources to focus on the quakes. While these resources are desperately needed, a collective focus should also be placed on the tremors. For examples of how both can be addressed, let’s take the case of childhood wellbeing. Childhood wellbeing envelops every aspect of a young person’s development—cognitive, emotional, physical, and social—and serves as the platform on which successful academic, health, and other life outcomes rests. However, research shows that childhood wellbeing can be severely impacted by traumatic events like those associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Foundations across the country have already begun to address big quakes caused by COVID-19. Pooled city-wide investments are being made in places like Seattle, New York City, Atlanta, and the Mid-South Region to ensure continuity of social sector provisions. These efforts are excellent models for those wishing to indirectly safeguard childhood wellbeing by ensuring that parents and guardians are emotionally and financially stable. More targeted philanthropic efforts have also surfaced for issues like digital equity for public school students, support of the LGBTQ community, and health services provisions to vulnerable populations.
Still more can be done to rapidly buffer the big quakes. For example, U.S. foundations can minimize closures in our nation’s vital early education system. A quality early education has life-long benefits, yet the sector responsible for producing these outcomes is disproportionately comprised of mom-and-pop providers whose tuition scales are typically based on attendance rather than enrollment. These operational factors lead to sector-level vulnerability when families are encouraged to keep young children home as a public health imperative. At this point, some closures of early learning environments will be inevitable, but the philanthropic community can minimize the scale of closures by brokering local public–private partnerships that produce safety net provisions which can be used for the retention of early learning teachers, lease payments, substitute labor for those educators recovering from COVID-19, etc. In fact, foundations may not need to use cash for such a partnership if they are willing to use their balance sheet as collateral.
Alternately, foundations can support the provision of non-traditional health and dental care in jurisdictions where public schools have closed for the year, thereby shutting doors to the school-based health clinics that may have served as the medical home for large percentages of a student population. Temporary investments in telemedicine or mobile health services would offer tremendous value in times of crisis. Both alternate health delivery options promise to reduce the burden of travel for families, improve access in underserved areas, and minimize household expense, while contributing to a child’s overall wellbeing.
Foundations have a little more time to prepare for the inevitable tremors. In many young people, tremors may eventually present themselves as reduced ability to self-regulate, underdeveloped executive function skills, diminished physical and mental health, substance use, and emotional disturbances, and they will be byproducts of personal adversities experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the science of ACES has made clear that children can contain and overcome adversity when they have systems of supports defined by the consistent presence of caring adults and the provision of resources needed to heal.
Foundations can invest in systemic responses in many ways. Assuming the wholesale disruption of the PreK–16 education delivery system will (1) create large-scale learning loss, (2) exacerbate existing disparities among subgroups, and (3) introduce new challenges in assessing academic growth via standardized tests, foundations are well-positioned to take the lead in forging cross-sector action that prevents escalating pressure on the system.
For example, philanthropy can catalyze in-school case management approaches that put educators, parents, health care providers, guidance counselors, and, potentially, social workers in regular dialogue with one another about students. Such an approach will allow educators to, rightfully, focus their energy on learning and instruction while ensuring young people get the care they need. Several well-established formats already exist and can be found in use by entities like Communities in Schools, The Harlem Children’s Zone, and Promise Neighborhoods across the country.
Another systemic investment might be in the realm of advocacy. Foundations generally do not understand the leeway they have to comfortably advocate for certain issues without jeopardizing their tax exemption. The philanthropic community can join their voices to push for educator retention bonuses, more publically subsidized early learning environments to help create and sustain a stable supply of higher quality instructional settings, or broadband investments that will support more equitable approaches to distance learning. Advocacy for the preservation of and improvements to the Affordable Care Act may also alleviate the heavy reliance on school-based health clinics in some communities.
While the aforementioned examples are certainly not exhaustive, they all share the same hypothesis—reverberating disruptions to education access will compound the effects that tremors like anxiety, toxic stress, and despair have on childhood wellbeing.
The societal needs created by COVID-19’s quakes and tremors will be numerous. As foundations consider approaches for action, it is essential to think about immediate stabilization and longer-term systemic responses that will buffer the disruption and adversity experienced by our children.