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For many students, the COVID pandemic has radically changed how schooling works at all age levels: In 2021, most very young children have known little else other than taking classes from home, and in underserved communities, school closures have been an extremely difficult challenge for students and educators alike.

This is not because students do not have a desire to learn or to succeed in life. In impoverished communities where multi-generational poverty was a major issue even before COVID hit, family problems quite simply often trump the responsibilities of school. When parents are working three jobs to put food on the table, in other words, children are often needed at home to look after siblings or take care of household responsibilities.

In underserved communities, returning to classrooms might feel like an extraordinary challenge for many students. Moreover, helping students learn to get back into the routine of the traditional school day and to feel excited about the learning process poses a great and even career-defining challenge to educators. But it is possible to do so and change lives in the process.

In many respects, teachers, parents, and administrators in underserved communities must also act as mentors to children and young adults living in these areas. Most children want to succeed in the world; in impoverished communities, the problem of succeeding in life often comes down to a lack of opportunities for even the most capable students.

Too often, in fact, children in these areas feel as though there is no way forward in society even with a good work ethic. And with college tuition rates increasing, many students feel as though they cannot even afford to continue their schooling after high school. There are no easy solutions to these problems. Short of signing a contract with the military, many students from impoverished areas have no option but to forego a college education in this day and age.

The first issue to be dealt with therefore is one of confidence. To wit, students must feel as though they stand a chance of succeeding in the world if they work hard in school.

Fortunately, reinforcing feelings of confidence is easier in an in-person class. When teachers act as mentors who can recognize the strength of their students, a lot can change very quickly. The subject of the film “Stand and Deliver,” for example, the calculus teacher Jaime Escalante turned his impoverished East Los Angeles high school into a mathematics powerhouse.

How did Escalante do it? As a teacher, Escalante understood that children have as much potential as they believe themselves to have. By allowing students to believe in their own abilities, in other words, Escalante broke the cycle of inter-generational poverty in a vast number of families.

This is a lesson that educators can learn from. As students begin to question the very foundations of the American educational system in the wake of COVID-19, it is very true that we will all have our work cut out for us whether we are parents or educators. But this is also a time of great possibility: If we can also help students realize what they are capable of now, no challenge will be too great.