The impact of COVID-19 on K-12  education as experienced by Julia Rich  

When the pandemic hit in 2020, the crisis tested the world’s ability to deal with large-scale disruptions on a multitude of levels, including in the classroom experiences of children and educators.

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy Principal Julia Rich shares her story of triumph, tragedy, love, and pain as she sheds light on the impact of COVID-19 and its intersection with the nation’s K-12 education system. She explains how she took her passion for English and African American studies to educate children beyond the classroom with a curriculum that focuses on how to better their community and themselves.

“I’ve always viewed myself as an educator for children who look like me, using education as a way of liberation,” says Rich, who underscores that as the reason she enters the building every single day. “It is now up to us as a community to build as its legacy a more resilient society. Our call to action is to ensure that all young people have the opportunity to succeed at school and develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will allow them to contribute to society in a meaningful way.”

Growing up in Virginia, Rich recalls experiences that she had in the education system that she wouldn’t wish on any child. In college, she felt called to this work and made a personal vow to recognize and problem-solve around the current state of Blacks in this country. With each career opportunity, she felt a tugging on her spirit and divine intervention.

In February 2020, her biological mother passed away. She remembers traveling to South Carolina, where her mother had passed, and really didn’t have an idea what was to come the next month. Shortly after, she made the decision to travel to Detroit. “I distinctly remember March 2020. I remember getting off the plane and going to the store to try to buy Lysol and there was none. I remember being terrified. I remember feeling like I didn’t know this was coming and I don’t know what to do.”

Working at KIPP Jacksonville at the time, and nearing spring break she recalls, “When we got that email that stated that we were not returning after spring break. I remember thinking to myself, I don’t know how to teach if I’m not in the classroom, and not knowing what to do.”

Educators had to learn how to create a Google Classroom and consider the special population of students who have Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and 504s to help protect the rights of children with disabilities in schools. They were trying to hand out computers, hotspots, or an actual subscription to an internet provider. All of those things were necessary to ensure every child had access, and yet, there was still an access gap.”

She remembers that there were so many educators who chose to leave because they got hit so hard. “Not only that, but the ability and the sheer amount of sickness going around, like just all those different things were major factors,” she says. “The logistics for teachers became about covering other teachers who have left their classrooms and having to gather data for students they’ve never taught. So many different moving parts.”

Relentless and Intentional

Rich became a mom in her teens, and experience made her the person that she is today. “I’m built differently, and I have a point of view and education that makes me relentless and intentional about the education that I know Black and brown children deserve. Now as a mother of four, it’s a personal experience,” she explains. “I’m a single mom, and every day I get up, that is my biggest privilege and the biggest thing that I’m proud of because I know I’m raising great kids. And I’m sorry, I get a little emotional because the pandemic year was rough. I’ve never seen my kids when they’re truly struggling.”

Having two children with IEPs and different sets of needs, it became a juxtaposition of mom and education leader for Rich.

“I remember saying to myself, this feels so conflicting because I’m an educator, I know what my children need, and they’re not getting it over the computer,” she says. “Virtual learning is just not the best. Those who are in education understand that virtual learning was not an ideal situation to learn in. Education leaders have to be intentional about how to address the learning gaps that formed.”


Living Where You Serve

Fast forward to February 2021. It was her first time ever setting foot in Denver, Colorado. She arrived with snow on the ground and immediately fell in love with the community, the school, the students, and staff members. She recalls saying to herself, “Okay, this is what’s next.”

She made the decision to live in the community where she serves, a decision that she hasn’t made before. “I’ve always commuted 25 to 30 minutes, and I’ve been okay with that, but this time around, I said, ‘No, it is important to me to be a representation of where I choose to serve,’ and that’s how I got here.”

That decision allows her to lead change in a school community, but also work alongside the community, and partner with parents, families, children, businesses and universities and colleges, to really, honestly show what’s possible. Her philosophy is: we are here to educate children, and we’re here to educate them holistically.

“Our babies made it through that pandemic year on those computers and were able to sit still, pass classes, and pass state tests and all those things,” she says. “They can do anything. And that’s one thing that when you talk about resiliency, I think about like, what, if anything, the pandemic has shown us, we can do anything, there is nothing that we can’t. There isn’t anything.”

She stresses, “The 2020 year was rough. It was rough. The difference with the pandemic year, is that not a lot of us recognized and were able to tend to the emotional, social, and emotional learning needs of students at home, giving this whole scope of everything happening in the world, happening in class, all of those things.

“Simple luxuries of kids being able to raise their hands to ask a teacher for help and becoming frustrated because they can’t socialize with their friends. These things took a toll on our kids, not just mine, but that was rough. As an educator watching that and seeing it happen in real-time; and, knowing that as an educator, I too was trying to keep my promise to other families, I knew I needed to do for the generations that are to come after me,” she says.

Moving Forward with Optimism

Author and Principal Baruti Kafele posed a question: “Is education, what you do or who you are?” Rich’s answer: “As a mother, and as a mother who is an educator, and as a mother who is a principal, I recognized more than likely, my children will interact with the students that I teach, and that I lead. I must be so intentional about everything because the children I educate will likely interact with my children. Part of me showing up as a great mom is being a great educator. I see how excited they are to just be in class, to get to do partner work or group work, and get to talk to the teacher. I have my youngest daughter playing basketball, things like that, that were taken from children, not by their choice, but that they’re able to do again. I see how much they need that. They need that for proper development. And not saying that development can’t happen without it, but they need it to be their best selves.”

Rich believes the way the world used to think about education and access is no longer the same because that year revealed what essentially is possible.

“Was it perfect? Oh, no, but we saw triumph in the tragedy. You have to be very clear about why you do this work before you step foot into your classroom, because if you’re not clear about the population that you choose to serve, or why you choose to show up every day, when it gets tough, your first option is going to be to leave,” she warns. “In education, it can’t be one-sided. All stakeholders must be unwavering in what they believe is possible for children. That involves the school, which involves family, which involves students. Everyone has to be involved. Everybody has to show up, but at the end of the day, there’s still a child. The children make decisions for themselves sometimes, but they’re still children.”

Rich moves forward with optimism, but points out, “It involves everybody: the community, parents, and the children. Of course, it involves everybody. And so, my path forward is one that I believe will be collaborative and in partnership. I have a really big vision for this school specifically, to be the number-one performing high school in Denver, Colorado, not just the far northeast, but Denver, Colorado, and I mean what I say. I think people speak on education, but they have no idea what goes on in these walls because this work is not easy, but if you love it enough, you’ll just be able to do anything. And I love it enough. I really do.”

Rich has aimed to build a culture at KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy where everyone is seen and the team feels supported. “I have a really strong leadership team that I’m super proud to lead, but I have the right people on that leadership team that also align with my morals, values, belief in students, and belief in what’s possible here. If people feel supported, they stay.”