For both youth and adult learners, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into a system already burdened by deeply rooted challenges and inequities. The virus didn’t just blow through, damaging the walls of a structure that could easily be rebuilt. Rather, it stormed in like a tornado and exposed the faulty lines of our educational foundation.

The pivot to virtual learning has exposed a deep digital divide between those with and without access. Educators, already tapped before the pandemic, are burning out trying to meet the evolving needs of their students while caring for their own health and families. There is the annual “summer slide,” which disproportionately affects economically disadvantaged and minority students. And now there’s “COVID slide,” which some experts predict will be defined by as much as six to 12 months of learning loss, and the “COVID career slide,” which hinders adult learners from pursuing advanced education – and, subsequently, higher-wage jobs – because of heightened anxieties about cost.

The good news is that pre-pandemic systems work to start dismantling foundational challenges and inequities across Essex County – work proudly supported by ECCF – continues today. And at its core, this work aims to solve our region’s most pressing issues at their roots, which COVID has so starkly reminded us is crucial if our systems are to be resilient in the future.

Strengthening K-12 by creating a network of support

When COVID-19 forced the physical closure of public schools, 11 of Essex County’s districts – serving more than 35,000 students – had immediate access to critical resources as members of the first two cohorts of the Essex County Learning Community (ECLC), an intensive, two-year professional development experience funded in large part by the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation. It is aimed at helping local educators better meet the diverse needs of students with learning disabilities, learning and attention issues and exposure to trauma – as well as those who experience systemic bias related to race, ethnicity, language, income and gender.

In the midst of a global pandemic, this work has become more important than ever before.

“Our mission has met its moment,” said Jane Feinberg, director of the ECLC.

Nearly half of all students (46%) in participating school districts – which are listed on the ECLC website – are defined as “high needs” and tend to face more learning challenges than their peers. According to ImpactEssexCounty.org, reading and math proficiency is significantly lower in economically disadvantaged, Hispanic and African American students in Essex County when compared to their more affluent, white or Asian peers. And chronic absenteeism has been rising in many of our urban centers. COVID-19 is likely to exacerbate these challenges, and educators need more opportunities to access state-of-the-art training, on-site coaching and social supports to address them.

In March, the ECLC began offering pandemic-specific professional development, a series that continues this fall. In May, they hosted a superintendents’ roundtable. The annual Summer Institute gave districts access to national experts on common challenges, including equity, mental health, creating trauma-safe schools and more.

In addition, the ECLC has been providing increased opportunities for members to build relationships within and across neighboring districts.

“What we are really trying to do is connect people to each other,” said Feinberg. “We want our Essex County school districts to experience that sense of a network so that people do not feel alone.”

Close to 500 educators have participated in the ECLC since its inception. Over time, the organization hopes to engage all 28 of Essex County’s districts, which serve a total of approximately 160,000 students.

Expanding access to adult education

Massachusetts currently has the highest unemployment rate in the country at 16.1%; on the North Shore, the rate is even higher (17.2%).

For a region in which 38% of residents were living below the living wage before the pandemic, COVID-19 has turned a serious situation in Essex County dire. If advanced education – a precursor to increased job opportunities and higher wages – ever was in the cards, COVID-19 is forcing people’s hands. According to a recent survey by educational research firm EAB, 34.4% of prospective adult learners said that COVID-19 had changed their plans to pursue additional education. Economic worry – whether focused on current job security or future prospects – is causing some to defer enrollment while others are accelerating it.

Either way, as uncertainty lingers, education quickly emerges as the only pathway to a better quality of life. And people need access to it now. And they need it to be affordable.

In Essex County, work to help make that happen was already taking place:

The Northeast Regional Prior Learning Assessment Consortium (NERPLAC) – a collection of colleges and universities, workforce boards, employers and community organizations, led by North Shore Community College – enables adult learners to translate work experience into college credits, easing the path to an advanced degree.

The Advanced Manufacturing Training Expansion Program (AMTEP) – an initiative powered by the GE Foundation and MassHire’s North Shore Workforce Investment Board – readies learners for advanced manufacturing careers through hands-on programming at area technical schools.

These programs – which help create a viable workforce – had made significant headway before the pandemic struck. And today, the work continues, both in spite of and because of COVID-19. NERPLAC recently announced the addition of Merrimack College to the consortium and continues to recruit new students. Forty-three AMTEP students earned their milling industry certifications in June and half of them have already been employed. A new class of students started this month.

AMTEP program manager Kate O’Malley attributes the success of these programs to the passion and experience of administrators and instructors.

“Especially now, during the COVID-impacted job market, they recognize the increased urgency to offering certified adult learning career pathways, and they have the strength and creativity within their teams to safely pivot to distance learning and hybrid models,” she said.

“The additional component of success,” O’Malley added, “is the collaboration and commitment amongst AMTEP partners, all working together to create solutions to COVID roadblocks while exhibiting a sincere commitment to helping people better their lives.”

It’s a call for this type of collaboration that we ask leaders to answer today. We need to work together to strengthen the educational systems that power our economy. We need to co-create solutions that minimize the “slide,” and adapt to new opportunities. We need to plan and learn together and make collaborative investments in foundational infrastructure like digital access, transportation and workforce development programs.

As a county, we can do great things. But we won’t know just how much we can do – until we begin together.

Stratton Lloyd is COO and vice president for Community Leadership at Essex County Community Foundation. Michelle Xiarhos Curran is the foundation’s communications writer.

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