As students and educators enter their third full year of schooling during a pandemic, they do so amid a flurry of conversation happening around support for their Mental Health.
What will behavior problems and discipline look like this year? And where are the opportunities to ensure that the consequences are distributed fairly?
That’s what New York University researcher Richard Welsh tried to glean by examining how disciplinary practices have evolved throughout the pandemic. He sifted through media reports for a national view, but took a close look at changes in one school district in the Southeast — an “emerging urban” district where black and Latino students together made up nearly 75% of its approximately 13,000 registrations.
Welsh results were published in the June edition of the Peabody Journal of Education.
One of the most striking findings was that even when students in the district Welsh analyzed spent little time learning in person, African-American students still received a disproportionate share of what Welsh called “exclusionary discipline.” which kept them away from the classroom.
From 2015 through the 2020-2021 school year, the rate of office disciplinary referrals (ODRs) issued to black students has remained steady at around 80%. Before the pandemic, according to the study, black students were three times more likely to be suspended out of school than their white peers. They represent only half of the students in the district.
The first full year with COVID-19
In the 2020-2021 school year, the district in Welsh Research reported fewer than 600 office referrals – more than 7,000 fewer than the previous school year – and an increase in the use of conference calls. students and parent notifications about suspensions. The dramatic drop makes sense, as students spent a small part of the year in person due to COVID-19.
Welsh points to a few other potential explanations for the decline in cases of expulsion discipline, including that teachers may have reacted differently to students knowing the stress caused by the pandemic.
It also posits that certain disciplinary practices, such as placing a disruptive student in a quiet room, may simply not have been registered or recognized as a discipline in the new virtual environment.
“You can’t fix a problem until you see it,” Welsh writes. “Underreporting disciplinary data can lead to the false evaporation of racial disparities in exclusionary discipline, obscure the extent of exclusion in virtual classrooms, and undermine the urgent need for school discipline reforms. “
Relearning to “do school”
The 2021-2022 school year has brought its own challenges as the district in Welsh’s research — and others across the country — has returned to in-person teaching.
Welsh found that office dismissals and disciplinary suspensions, which he said are concerning because of the learning time they cost students, have started to climb back towards their pre-pandemic levels.
District schools reported more fights, and administrators told Welsh in interviews that students returned with significantly less respect for authority figures. They seemed to have forgotten how to “do school”, according to the report.
The district was also grappling with mental health issues from educators and students not just because of the pandemic, Welsh writes, but perhaps because of the constant pivoting and uncertainty it has brought. New teachers and those suffering from burnout may have been more likely to use office referrals for student discipline, he says.
“Several stressors from the past school year are still present in schools and perhaps even more magnified for both students and adults,” Welsh writes. “There is frustration with the loss of learning, which leads to an intensification of the relationship between academic and school discipline, problems with socialization, and disruption of access to services.”
While the previous year saw an increase in the number of teachers communicating with parents – possibly avoiding office dismissals and suspensions – Welsh says the second year of pandemic schooling has resulted in a hardening of schools, “ returning to the use of exclusionary discipline or investing in school resources (ORS) and additional safety measures.
Make next year different
With so many overlapping factors impacting student behavior and discipline, how does Welsh suggest school districts approach the year ahead? With more support at all levels – for students, teachers, principals – both mentally and professionally. In particular, he says districts need to think about how trauma affects black students differently than their peers, and how that might affect their behavior.
Because while the pandemic — coupled with a widespread push for racial equity following the 2020 murder of George Floyd — once offered an opportunity to think differently about discipline in schools, Welsh sees the results pointing in the wrong direction. .
“A converging perfect storm could trigger an expansion of racial inequalities in school discipline in the coming school years,” Welsh writes, “if policymakers and education leaders are not alert and strategically responsive. changes in trends in school discipline”.