Despite the extraordinary efforts by teachers and families to educate Baton Rouge’s children during the pandemic, many students have lost ground amid school closures, virtual schooling and the trauma of a global crisis. Students who suffered the greatest learning loss were often those who were already most underserved by our community’s public schools.

We cannot pass on the opportunity now before us to both gain back lost ground and give our students a leg up in the race to academic excellence.

When schools shut down over a year ago, few understood the health, education and wide-ranging implications the pandemic would have for students and families. Now, thankfully, signs point to a growing recovery, driven by the rapid distribution of vaccines.

But just as the health effects of COVID-19 have varied from community to community, so too have the education experiences varied from student to student. Baton Rouge’s most vulnerable students suffered the most and education experts from all viewpoints warn that, left unchecked, preexisting achievement gaps will widen dramatically.

The good news is that our community will have support as we take on this task. A monumental amount of federal relief dollars have been targeted to helping school districts in Louisiana reverse the tide of learning loss that swept in with the pandemic. The more than $4 billion in federal aid available statewide gives East Baton Rouge Parish schools a tremendous opportunity: not only a return to normalcy, but a chance to accelerate student learning and set Baton Rouge on a path to greater and more equitable student outcomes than we have ever before achieved.

This moment of opportunity calls for bold action.

With summer looming, long-term strategic planning in process, and incredible amounts of new funding available, EBR’s School Board must lay the groundwork now for years of significant progress. Getting back to pre-pandemic performance is not enough. Funding must be sought and allocated to address equity in education quality, provide comprehensive social-emotional tools for students, improve educator resources, and engage community partners in supporting the whole child.

The priorities that must be front-and-center in EBR Schools’ strategic plan were fortunately included in recent guidance issued by the Louisiana Department of Education regarding appropriate uses of available federal recovery funding. Importantly, the department highlighted addressing both the unique needs and learning loss of low-income children, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth.

Families and teachers became more active partners in education during the pandemic, and that partnership must continue to both effectively mitigate the learning loss that took place for so many students and go beyond that to close the achievement gap that exists for so many more. The partnership born of necessity now has an opportunity to become solidified as we craft an ambitious shared vision of educational excellence for Baton Rouge students.

EBR Schools is making moves to address these issues and we applaud the urgency with which it is taking action. We also know that success in this effort must include ongoing and intentional dialogue with families, educators and community partners, and must be more comprehensive and strategic in order to achieve the outcomes we all want for Baton Rouge students.

Adonica Pelichet Duggan heads the Baton Rouge Alliance for Students.