Ideally, public education can be a great equalizer. The institutions that serve our young people – early childhood centers, K-12 schools, community colleges, universities, and youth development agencies – should be our most powerful weapons against generational poverty.

But what happens when school campuses shut down for students and classrooms are no longer a shared ground for learning? What happens when schoolyards and summer programs cease to be a place for friendships and growth? 

Even before the pandemic, there were rampant inequities in our community. In the fall, data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed San Antonio had the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the nation’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas. A legacy of discriminatory housing policies continues to have lasting effects on our neighborhoods. And the Federal Reserve Bank has estimated that a quarter of our community lacks internet access. These inequities inevitably show up in our school campuses as well, where they can we lessened or intensified, depending on the decisions made by educators and administrators. 

Since the pandemic began, educational, philanthropic, and local government leaders across San Antonio have taken powerful actions to take care of students. In response to the COVID-19 health crisis, school districts have distributed meals and technology, all while learning how to deliver instruction online. However, even when meals, iPads, Chromebooks, and hotspots are available, it has proven difficult to reach families who have been thrown into job loss, homelessness, and hunger.

UP Partnership, a nonprofit focused on ensuring young people in Bexar County are ready for the future, has been actively engaging students, school administrators, and community leaders to understand how young people are experiencing the crisis. Through surveys, a youth town hall, and a social media contest, we have heard about the wide range of challenges our children and youth are facing. 

We are learning that students across Bexar County are worried about each other. While all young people are navigating the transition to online learning, many of our older students are seeing their friends and peers also picking up extra responsibilities – from stepping in to cover the care of younger siblings to becoming a primary source of income for the household.

We are also hearing about the persistent effects of the digital divide – this map shows how that divide is impacting Bexar County zip codes at very different levels. Students and educators remain worried about mental health challenges, increases in domestic and child abuse, loss of childcare for younger siblings, disruptions to college plans, and the struggles of youth enduring juvenile detention. These challenges are not new but are being amplified.

Casting a long shadow over all these issues are the twin challenges of economic insecurity and racial and ethnic inequities. For students in stable homes with technology access and financially secure caregivers, the pandemic is primarily a disruption to their friendships and community. But the reality is very different for students in low-income households, especially in Latino communities that are experiencing the greatest share of job loss and African-American communities that are experiencing the highest mortality rates. Families living below the poverty line have on average about half as many books in the home as affluent households and 40 percent have high levels of food insecurity. For more detailed national and local data on the economic impacts of COVID-19, see this tracker from Opportunity Insights.

To ensure an equitable recovery for our community, we need a powerful wave of strategic equity leaders. We need champions who will work together to manage the present crisis while building a future where generational poverty becomes an artifact of the past. The seeds for this future already exist. 

These seeds are evident in the ways that the Alamo Colleges and the University of Texas at San Antonio are raising funds to help their most vulnerable students meet basic needs while also advancing their college promise initiatives, despite budget challenges. Similarly, Texas A&M University-San Antonio is raising funds to support their vulnerable students, as well supporting them with food through their pantry and a summer book scholarship. Seeds of the future can also be seen in the ways that Trinity University is recruiting more first-generation college students, who will benefit from expanded summer bridge programming. We also see these seeds in the ways that the Alamo Colleges and Trinity University are finding alternatives to narrow testing requirements for students, thereby opening the pool of potential students.

Each of these institutions is finding new ways to help their students succeed in a blended online and in-person learning environment. These strategies help to expand who can access and succeed in college in crucial ways. Each of them could be sustained and expanded long after COVID-19 ceases to be a threat.

Across Bexar County school districts, similar seeds for a more equitable future exist. East Central ISD leaders are preparing to expand supports for emotional health and trauma recovery, prioritizing both in-school and out-of-school strategies for helping students to recover from extended isolation and grow stronger than ever. Judson ISD is on track to launch an all-day 3-year-old program at every elementary school campus this fall, a major new effort to increase early literacy. Southwest ISD leaders are actively helping to grow the internet infrastructure in their partially rural district, including advancing a family scholarship for internet affordability.

Both San Antonio ISD and  Northside ISD are planning summer instructional strategies to minimize the learning loss that is being experienced by tens of thousands of students. These intensive summer supports – like expanding early literacy, emotional supports, and internet infrastructure – could become a new normal in the fight against the achievement disparities that often fuel the reproduction of poverty. 

San Antonio’s education leaders have boldly committed to ensuring that equity will be front and center in their decision-making and institutional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only are these leaders leveraging their resources toward equitable outcomes for students, they are also challenging fellow leaders across the community to do the same. If you lead a business, nonprofit, education, or government institution that impacts children’s outcomes, then please join them in taking this Equitable Recovery Pledge.

It will take years to fully understand the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we already know that we need deep changes in our city and society. Poverty has long been entrenched in many parts of San Antonio and, if we don’t act swiftly, it will only intensify. The time to make these changes is now.

Let’s commit to turning this catastrophic moment into a recovery that works for all of our young people and their families, regardless of where they live, the boxes they check on the census, or their employment status. Our willingness to step up just might make all the difference.

Ryan Lugalia-Hollon is the author of “The War on Neighborhoods: Policing, Prison, and Punishment in a Divided City,” from Beacon Press. He is also the executive director of UP Partnership, a collective...

Elaine Mendoza is board chair of PreK 4 SA.