Much attention in the post-pandemic era has been on what students have lost – days of school, psychological health, knowledge and skills. But now we have evidence that they may also have gained something: schools that address more of their needs. A majority of public schools have begun providing services that are far afield from traditional academics, including healthcare, housing assistance, childcare and food aid.
In a Department of Education survey released in October 2023 of more than 1,300 public schools, 60 percent said they were partnering with community organizations to provide non-educational services. That’s up from 45 percent a year earlier in 2022, the first time the department surveyed schools about their involvement in these services. They include access to medical, dental, and mental health providers as well as social workers. Adult education is also often part of the package; the extras are not just for kids.
“It is a shift,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, where she tracks school spending. “We’ve seen partnering with the YMCA and with health groups for medical services and psychological evaluations.”
Deeper involvement in the community started as an emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic. As schools shuttered their classrooms, many became hubs where families obtained food or internet access. Months later, many schools opened their doors to become vaccine centers.
New community alliances were further fueled by more than $200 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds that have flowed to schools. “Schools have a lot of money now and they’re trying to spend it down,” said Roza. Federal regulations encourage schools to spend recovery funds on nonprofit community services, and unspent funds will eventually be forfeited.
The term “community school” generally refers to schools that provide a cluster of wraparound services under one roof. The hope is that students living in poverty will learn more if their basic needs are met. Schools that provide only one or two services are likely among the 60 percent of schools that said they were using a community school or wraparound services model, but they aren’t necessarily full-fledged community schools, Department of Education officials said.
The wording of the question on the federal School Pulse Panel survey administered in August 2023 allowed for a broad interpretation of what it means to be a community school. The question posed to a sample of schools across all 50 states was this: “Does your school use a “community school” or “wraparound services” model? A community school or wraparound services model is when a school partners with other government agencies and/or local nonprofits to support and engage with the local community (e.g., providing mental and physical health care, nutrition, housing assistance, etc.).”
The most common service provided was mental health (66 percent of schools) followed by food assistance (55 percent). Less common were medical clinics and adult education, but many more schools said they were providing these services than in the past.
The number of full-fledged community schools is also believed to be growing, according to education officials and researchers. Federal funding for community schools tripled during the pandemic to $75 million in 2021-22 from $25 million in 2019-20. According to the education department, the federal community schools program now serves more than 700,000 students in about 250 school districts, but there are additional state and private funding sources too.
Whether it’s a good idea for most schools to expand their mission and adopt aspects of the community school model depends on one’s view of the purpose of school. Some argue that schools are taking on too many functions and should not attempt to create outposts for outside services. Others argue that strong community engagement is an important aspect of education and can improve daily attendance and learning. Research studies conducted before the pandemic have found that academic benefits from full-fledged community schools can take several years to materialize. It’s a big investment without an instant payoff.
Meanwhile, it’s unclear whether schools will continue to embrace their expanded mission after federal pandemic funds expire in March 2026. That’s when the last payments to contractors and outside organizations for services rendered can be made. Contracts must be signed by September 2024.
Edunomics’s Roza thinks many of these community services will be the first to go as schools face future budget cuts. But she also predicts that some will endure as schools raise money from state governments and philanthropies to continue popular programs.
If that happens, it will be an example of another unexpected consequence of the pandemic. Even as pundits decry how the pandemic has eroded support for public education, it may have profoundly transformed the role of schools and made them even more vital.
This story about wraparound services was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.