America is suffering through two insidious and deadly pandemics, one brought forth by a novel virus and the other by a long-overdue reckoning of the intransigent racial and ethnic disparity at every level within all of our systems.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our public schools, where nearly 50 percent of children come from communities of color, and with nearly one-third of Black children and one-quarter of Hispanic children living at or below the poverty level. It is precisely these students who are trapped in the crosshairs of both pandemics: the coronavirus having laid bare inequities in health risk, access to virtual education platforms and basic safety both in and outside of their homes—all factors compounded by the profoundly damaging effects of poverty and racism.
Educators, scientists, public health experts and policymakers have spent decades—rightly, though with varying degrees of success—on optimizing the educational environment for children, by focusing on safe, culturally responsive and engaging classroom environments that meet the needs of diverse learners and develop the whole child. As a behavioral geneticist focused on the mind-body effects of stress and the development of resilience, I believe it is clear that in order to do this well, we must also focus on optimizing the school environment for teachers.
To do this, we look to science, which tells an optimistic story about the powerful levers at our disposal to optimize brain health, physical health and well-being at any point in the life span.
Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University and a Visiting Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education.