By Ulya Aligulova 

Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed grew up in military-ruled Mogadishu, Somalia. As a child, he never imagined that one day he would become co-principal of an American high school. Deering High School is the most diverse high school in Maine, with students from more than 30 countries on five different continents. Dr. Ahmed spoke with Amjambo Africa.

What were some of the highs and lows of the past few school years? 

None of us were ready for the pandemic – not only those of us in education, but all other domains of life. The education system wasn’t unique in being impacted. The public health sector as well as the economy were not ready either. We all had to learn to do things differently, and do them right in the middle of fearful times. In schools, we had to learn how to provide education by creating new, different platforms for learning – like online lessons, and using different technologies. And we had to adapt while in fear of losing lives. We weren’t ready for any of it. 

Did anything good come out of the pandemic? 

The pandemic showed us the need for more equitable structures and more resilient systems. Soon after it started, many things became clear. For example, some kids don’t have enough food at home. And some kids don’t have internet at home. These things existed before, yet schools and systems hadn’t understood. For example, teachers had been assigning students work that required the internet, without realizing they did not have access. The inequities in the American systems didn’t start in 2019 with COVID. These inequities started long ago. I may sound harsh and critical, but the inequities are not new; the pandemic simply drew attention to them. And I think as we move forward, we need to build systems which are resilient, equitable, and forward-thinking, where all students can get equitable accommodations so their needs are met and they can compete equally. 

What are kids from economically disadvantaged homes facing at this point in the pandemic? 

Children have academic deficits stemming from the last few years, and also unmet social and emotional needs. They’ve been missing the social aspect of being together with their peers for a couple of years. Middle school kids who spent two years behind a computer screen and now come to high school find it very difficult. The challenge is how to recover from the 2½ years of the pandemic and for schools to anticipate the needs of the students and meet them where they are. But also to accelerate learning to get them to a level where we need them to be. So it’s recovery, but also acceleration. It’s a very challenging job. 

How about children from immigrant families – how are they doing? 

Children by nature are resilient. I’m an immigrant myself. And children from families where the parents are immigrants have a lot of assets. Because their parents had to come here to start a new life, in a new place. The children of immigrants see first hand what it means to really work hard, and struggle, and make things possible. But they also need support systems because our structures weren’t built to accommodate different needs. The schools need to not only fit the students into existing structures, but also try to meet the needs of individual students and their families by fitting the structures to the students. 

Many people are very concerned about children. Are you?   

One of the ways ancient civilizations used to punish people was through isolation or exile, which meant removing them from their social settings. Over the last two years, children have been removed from their social settings. And they’re coming back with certain deficits. The isolation has taken away from filling their social and emotional needs. There are kids who never got the chance to go to kindergarten, or pre-K, and now they’re seven or eight years old. They’ve never been to a proper school before, or been taught how to socialize with peers. So there’s a need to recover this loss of time and loss of learning and to meet students where they are and move them to their required level. 

Please share anything else that’s on your mind going into 2022-2023. 

I want to talk directly to all parents, including parents in the immigrant community. The schools alone cannot do everything – we really need to come together as a village. We need parents to help the students with their reading; we need them to communicate and collaborate with the schools – share information, talk to social workers, guidance counselors, teachers, and be at the top of their game because our kids really need us. Back where I came from in Africa, teachers were the stewards of everything, more like second parents. That’s not the case here. We need parents to be more involved. And talk to their children about their needs, and where they are, and how they are doing. These are unprecedented times. Our kids need our support now more than ever.