Opinion | School Is for Care

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By Jessica Grose

Kimberly Wilson’s TikTok videos often begin with the back of a little girl’s head. The child’s hair is matted, and Wilson, who works at Butcher-Greene Elementary in Grandview, Mo., begins to gently comb out the snarls. By the end of the videos, which tend to be just a minute or two long, the girl’s hair has been transformed into a beautiful braided style, often with colorful bows adorning it.

Wilson, who posts under the handle @ms.honey.vibes, is careful to obscure the children’s identities and never shares specific details of their struggles. Butcher-Greene is a Title I school, which means that it receives federal assistance because a high number of its students come from low-income families. Over 80 percent of its nearly 300 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

Wilson told me that some of her students are dealing with unstable and even violent home lives, and they see things outside of school a child should never have to see. She started making videos of the children before she even had a TikTok account, because she wanted to show them how to do their own hair at home if the adults in their lives weren’t capable of helping them care for it.

Hair care isn’t part of Wilson’s job description. As a behavior intervention specialist, she provides support to teachers when students are struggling. She gives children breaks from the classroom when they act out, and helps them work on their emotional regulation. “We’ll either remove the student to work on skills or remove the students to have a sensory break,” she explained. Wilson has mats and beanbag chairs in her room, where children can rest when they are exhausted or overwhelmed.

She does hair in any spare moments she can grab. Since her TikToks started going viral, other educators have reached out to her to say they do similar care work for their students. Wilson highlighted a fourth-grade teacher in Alabama named Carey Arensberg who has a “care closet” filled with toothbrushes, deodorant, hair ties and food for kids in need. Wilson has been able to install a washer and dryer in her school building thanks to donations from her TikTok followers, so that children without clean clothes can do laundry.

This kind of crucial support for children is something that happens every day in schools. When the pandemic began in 2020 and schools shut down, children did not just miss out on academics. They missed out on essential care from trusted adults outside their homes. I’m not just talking about child care for working parents, though of course schools do provide that, to an extent (still, the American school day doesn’t mirror typical parents’ working hours). I’m talking about a full spectrum of physical and emotional support, what Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution and the associate director of the Hamilton Project, who researches education and safety net policies, described as “stability and relationships.”

“Schools served a vital function in protecting our most vulnerable kids,” said Bauer. This function may have been obscure to many people who don’t frequently interact with the public education system. But when schools closed for months, “we no longer had that window into children’s lives. The screening — not just for glasses but for trouble at home; the observation that a child is falling asleep at their desk, or seems hungry or lacks an appetite,” she said.

Before the pandemic, more than 29 million children received food from the National School Lunch Program and around 15 million received food from the School Breakfast Program on a typical day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And according to Census Bureau data for 2020, the most recent year for which information is available, the median estimated poverty rate for school-age children was around 13 percent.

This lapse in care for many children happened before the pandemic, in a smaller way, every summer break: As the nonprofit campaign No Kid Hungry noted in 2016, “Research shows that family grocery costs rise more than $300 a month when school is out and school meals disappear, putting a strain on already tight budgets.”

But once the coronavirus quarantines hit, it was a true disaster. “Between March and May of 2020, the rate of food insecurity tripled in the United States; by May, one-fifth of mothers were struggling to feed their children — the highest rate since such data became available in 2001,” according to Karina Piser in The Nation.

What seems missing from a lot of the culture war wrangling over the implementation of “social-emotional learning,” or SEL — a curriculum meant to help bolster students’ emotional regulation and relationship skills — is the acknowledgment that emotional stability and academic achievement are inextricably linked. And that link is not new. Wendy A. Paterson, the dean of the School of Education at Buffalo State College, who has been an educator for 40 years and now trains educators, said that it has always been her experience that the whole child matters. “If you were a really well-prepared teacher, you were also sensitive to the fact that these are human beings in progress, and that schools have such a great influence,” Paterson said.

For example, it is much more difficult to learn if you’re crushed from grieving a parent or caregiver who died from Covid, a fate suffered by roughly one in 450 American children by the end of 2021. As the report “Hidden Pain: Children Who Lost a Parent or Caregiver to Covid-19 and What the Nation Can Do to Help Them,” from a group of health, economic and education experts, points out, “The traumatic loss of a caregiver has been associated with depression, addiction, lower academic achievement and higher dropout rates.” Nonwhite children lost caregivers at “up to nearly four times the rate of their white peers,” the report notes — a “grim reality.”

While “kids are incredibly resilient,” Paterson said, after being out of school for a prolonged period of time, “we were getting kids coming back who were just unable to work with other kids, to integrate with other kids and speak with them appropriately.”

When The Times polled over 300 school counselors in May, 88 percent of them said that students were having more trouble regulating their emotions than they did before the pandemic. This is a stark reminder for everyone that “we have got to go back to the notion that the classroom is a place for the development of people, and not just for the dissemination of curriculum,” as Paterson said. Ideally, we would live in a country where kids had their basic needs met by their parents or their close communities, and schools did not have to play such a vital and expansive role in children’s emotional lives. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and the more places children can learn to be empathetic humans, the better.

As Kimberly Wilson told me, what she’s doing for these children “goes so much further than just hair.” All the children in her school know that she only does hair for the kids who really need it, so they have started looking out for one another. They will bring her the children who need help. When the children walk in the room with their new hairstyles, their classmates shower them with compliments. “It’s starting to come full circle with our babies,” Wilson said. The children are seeing their teachers act with care and compassion, and they are giving it back to one another. If that’s not an essential schoolroom lesson, I don’t know what is.

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