In her blog about school re-openings, Simon Books, an African-American mother of three daughters, opened with, “my kids already thought school was a prison before COVID-19, now they won’t be able to play tag with their friends.” That her children already experienced school as dramatically dangerous and stressful is more than enough cause for pause; that the addition of isolation from the social support that friends provide makes it even worse should be enough to derail our assumptions about education, safety, and well-being.
Both before and after the onset of the pandemic, Simon and her daughters have been concerned daily about exacerbations of racial implicit bias, punitive discipline practices, and the hyper-policing of Black and Latinx students. Asymmetrical discipline practices between students of color and their white peers existed before the pandemic began: On average, Black students are three times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension compared to their white peers (for Black girls, this is six times as likely). With the addition of social isolation, they can’t be blamed for wondering if this asymmetricality won’t only get worse.
We haven’t seen much yet that would assuage their fears. With some school districts incorporating hybrid models in their proposed school reopening plans, including students physically returning to school two to three days a week, the discriminatory execution of safety guidelines is foreseeable. For example, when returning to physical school buildings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends students remain six feet apart and wear a face covering, especially among older students. Considering that Black students have been expelled for simply wearing their hair naturally or for appearing “unmanageable” to their teachers, the possibility of Black and Latinx students being disproportionately disciplined for not following these guidelines is likely.
The complexities of returning to school are further complicated by discriminatory practices students encounter in virtual learning. In Michigan, 15-year-old Grace became incarcerated in a juvenile detention center after a judge ruled that not completing her virtual school work violated her probation. Grace is Black and has ADHD. Her disability has made her particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, due to not having in-person instruction with her teachers. Grace felt overwhelmed and unmotivated when virtual learning began, and commented that she had “challenges keeping herself on track.” She resides in Oakland County, 15 percent of whose youth are Black; between January 2016 and June 2020, of the nearly 5,000 juvenile cases, Black youth make up 42 percent—nearly triple their population. The judge ruled that Grace’s failure to submit her schoolwork and to wake up for school made her a “threat” to the community, linking them to the charges that led to her probation. To date, Grace remains incarcerated, and there are campaigns for her to be released.
Unfortunately, the experiences of Simon’s daughters and Grace are not isolated incidents. For many Black and Latinx youth, their schooling experiences are dehumanizing instead of intellectually liberating. With some school districts reopening in less than a month, even as the pandemic surges in many states, decisions on school reopenings are foremost nationwide, and for many, they come with no small amount of trepidation. The news cycle discusses safety precautions and political pressure for students to return. While safety is rightfully the biggest priority, there is one factor of school reopenings that is often omitted from the media’s conversation—racial equity.
Black and Latinx communities have disproportionately borne the brunt of this pandemic, through risking and disproportionately losing their lives. Decisions on whether and how to handle school reopenings are insubstantial without carefully considering the implications for Black and Latinx students, their families, and their communities. In response to the most recent murders of Black Americans, and particularly of Mr. George Floyd, the past two months have seen a reckoning with racial justice. To do justice to that reckoning, returning to physical school buildings should not have a goal of returning to “normalcy,” given that the status quo normally marginalizes students of color. Instead, school districts should reopen with transformational practices on how to best serve their most vulnerable students. School reopenings present a perfect opportunity to have the recent national revolution in discourse transcend into the educational system, but it will require a holistic, abolitionist, and critically conscious approach.
How to Bring the Equity Students Need and Deserve to School
In a commentary I wrote in the spring, I provided recommendations to school districts on how to best serve their marginalized students after making the safest decision to physically close schools during the pandemic. I underscored the necessity of providing internet access and grab-and-go meals, particularly in communities of color. Unfortunately, this commentary was recently misrepresented by a staffer in the Trump administration. The commentary was used as a basis for arguing that schools must open in the fall, due to the harmful effects of school closures on students of color. To be clear, abruptly opening schools without the proper funding to safely prevent the spread of COVID-19 does not benefit students of color, but rather egregiously endangers their well-being. Children’s lives and those of their families should not be used as political footballs, and educator communities have anecdotally noted, if students and families must solely rely on schools to receive social services, then the school system is not the issue: governmental reform is.
Children’s lives and those of their families should not be used as political footballs, and educator communities have anecdotally noted, if students and families must solely rely on schools to receive social services, then the school system is not the issue: governmental reform is.
As school districts are announcing official reopening plans, they must center antiracism, equity, and humanity to comprehensively meet all of their students’ needs. Here are five recommendations that are inclusive of these equity components. They include the input of Black, white, and Latinx stakeholders with perspectives that invoke educational justice.
Fully fund school districts for the work of reopening safely, engaging the input of teachers and parents in the process.
The $13.5 billion of recovery aid allocated by Congress to K–12 education in the CARES Act is not sufficient for equity considerations. This amount represents less than 1 percent of the $2.8 trillion in federal aid allocated by the bill. For school districts with high populations of students of color operating in areas of high poverty, the aid will leave them strained for resources, such as providing masks, installing sinks, and hiring additional staff to accommodate smaller classes.
Zicuria Ussery is the dean of instruction at a charter school in Houston, Texas. Her school serves both Black and Latinx students in the Sunnyside community. Her school was recently renovated from a former warehouse where there are not many windows. She commented that her school “does not have the adequate resources for reopening schools, and they do not have the proper ventilation to abide by safety guidelines.”
Prior to the pandemic, Houston already had an education funding gap of nearly $12,000 per pupil, an amount which the city badly needs in order to achieve average outcomes. States simply aren’t able to make up that difference in this economic climate: nationwide, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that state revenue shortfalls will be 25 percent in the new fiscal year. It’s become increasingly clear that without additional federal assistance, education cuts are inevitable, and cuts which would dramatically hurt students of color. Education experts advocate for an additional $300 billion to stabilize school funding and to fund schools to safely reopen.
Along with increased funding, decisions on how to use the funds during school reopenings should not be made without the perspectives of teachers and parents. Zicuria is a former teacher, and another concern she has is that “a lot of teachers do not have the luxury to return to work due to being caregivers or having underlying conditions. Are school districts willing to risk their teaching force and their talents through unsafely reopening schools?” Here Zicuria poses questions and ethical considerations that school districts nationwide must thoughtfully consider. There are no easy answers, but having sufficient federal assistance directed to schools would certainly help.
End digital redlining.
The “digital divide” is a phrase that has come up repeatedly during conversations about education during the pandemic. It describes the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” for internet access, contributing to inequities in educational and economic outcomes. Critical scholars have coined the term digital redlining to accompany discussions of this divide, in order to underscore that a lack of internet access is most pronounced among Black, Latinx, and Indigenous youth, and particularly in urban and rural areas. Between nine and eleven million students still do not have reliable internet access to complete their virtual learning coursework, and the academic effects are considerable, including students receiving failing grades due to not having the internet to complete their assignments.
Considering that some districts have decided to have all-virtual learning until at least January 2021, reliable internet access is an educational and civil right for students, not a luxury. Efforts to end digital redlining have included advocacy efforts and pressure on Congress to provide additional funding to state departments of education to provide internet to their most needful students. Some school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified School Districts, have formed partnerships with PBS and corporations to keep their students connected. These efforts are working, and must be expanded so that vulnerable students across the country do not fall behind their more affluent peers. Students are being penalized for not having resources, a matter which is no fault of their own.
Neal Schick is a private school teacher in Brooklyn, New York. When asked about digital redlining, he commented that “if there were certain areas in the U.S. that do not have water, people would consider that barbaric, we need to feel the same way about the internet as a utility.” Shavion Smith, a high school teacher in Fairfax County Public Schools, the tenth largest district in the nation, voiced concerns for her English Language Learner students. Fairfax uses parent liaisons to provide outreach to families who may not be fluent in English. Even prior to the pandemic, there were challenges reaching out to families. Now, with budget cuts expected, Shavion commented that “I am concerned about how the potential lack of counselors will be able to support ELLs virtually.” She further articulated her concerns for students in the K–3 levels, where not all students have access to the internet, and need accessories such as headphones to successfully complete their schoolwork. Shavion herself has a young family member with special needs, and is worried that she may not be receiving all the support she needs.
Incorporate culturally affirming pedagogies into virtual classrooms.
One positive aspect of the recent reckonings with racial justice is the rise in promotion of anti-racism resources for students. With students doing virtual learning anywhere between 50 percent to full time in the fall, it is imperative that all students see their cultures affirmed in online curricula. From pre-kindergarten to the twelfth grade, educators have shared a plethora of anti-racist resources. Educators are now without excuse: the power to support their student in identity-affirming ways is in their hands.
Ensure virtual learning does not perpetuate racist disciplinary practices.
The incarceration that 15-year-old Grace has endured should not happen to any child. And though students may not be physically in school during the pandemic, the risk of it being repeated continues: disciplinary practices in virtual classrooms can still harm students of color.
Mike Boisseau is a father of two children in Fairfax County Schools, and emphasized that “there has to be teacher training on how to manage the classroom. Schools must leverage family engagement and be considerate of the home-lives of families and students.” Some students may not have consistent internet access or may have caregiving responsibilities. These students should not be categorized as “truant” for being unable to log into their virtual classrooms. Furthermore, Michael added that “it will be interesting to see what teachers classify as disciplinary infractions virtually, such as inattentiveness, and which races of students will be the most impacted, particularly since some teachers may not have even met their students yet due to school closures.”
Racist disciplinary practices are overwhelmingly traumatic for students of color. The criminalization of Black and Latinx students begins as early as pre-kindergarten. Even virtually, teachers must be conscientious of how they will execute discipline, and ensure that equity is carefully considered. Furthermore, being thoughtful of discipline practices virtually will ideally follow both educators and students back into physical classrooms, where teachers will feel more equipped to finally dismantle the school-to-prison nexus.
Use conclusive data, a moral compass, and an equity focus on deciding when and how to safely reopen schools.
The uncertainties over how and whether children transmit COVID-19 poses understandable anxieties for parents, teachers, and school districts. Along with the fear that children can infect their loved ones, districts must also consider the safety of cafeteria workers, janitorial staff, and teachers. Answering these questions is not a simple matter, and it is a moral obligation for school districts to open their schools only when it is safe to do so. Unfortunately, political pressure is significantly playing a role in these decisions; but the concern for our collective well-being must not be forsaken.
Neal Schick underscored that “when we make educational decisions based on if they are our own children, it makes school leaders think about them in an entirely different way. A balance must be met between humanity and safety precautions.” School reopenings will look different for local communities based on the state of the pandemic in their area, and will differ based on demographic disparities as well.
For mothers like Lisa Vasquez, school reopenings will be the light at the end of the tunnel. Vasquez is a young single mother of two children and a tireless advocate for educational justice. She spoke candidly about her experiences with racism in education. She resides in public housing in District 31 in Staten Island, and her children have special educational needs. Vasquez is suffering immensely to provide her children with an adequate education, and her advocacy has focused on getting her children a fair chance. She has faced compounded challenges in acquiring consistent internet access and providing the unique educational support her children need. She commented that “it is a failing agony to see my kids like this.”
Education is a human right for students of all identities—a right which extends to the nature of the education provided, and doesn’t stop at the simple fact of it.
However, even though Vasquez is eager for physical school reopenings, so her children can receive in-person instruction, she asserted that “reopening of schools should not mean returning to racist practices, particularly the lack of teacher diversity. Now is not the time to inflict more discrimination, abuse, and mistreatment of Black and Latinx students under the guise of keeping them safe.” Education is a human right for students of all identities—a right which extends to the nature of the education provided, and doesn’t stop at the simple fact of it. Ignoring equity in school reopenings or being complicit in racist educational practices does all educational stakeholders a disservice. Now is the time to dismantle these structural barriers.
Equitably reopening schools also means holistically reopening schools. The reality is that many, if not all, students will return to school traumatized due to losing their way of life, losing a loved one, or losing financial stability. These traumas may disparately affect Black and Latinx students due to the disproportionate loss of life in these communities. An example of a holistic approach would include a collaboration with schools of social work to ensure that the most vulnerable children have culturally competent professionals to tend to their mental and emotional needs.
When the Time Comes, Let’s Do This Right
As a former teacher, I empathize with teachers who want to return to physically attending school, in order to ensure that their most vulnerable students do not fall too behind. As a caregiver for an elderly person, I further empathize with parents and teachers who are terrified to send their children back to school due to risking exposure. There are no easy ways to address school reopenings. In Houston Texas, where in-person instruction has been delayed, virtual instruction may be the most feasible due to the rise in cases.
I do not have the solutions for the thousands of school districts, but I do urge them to bring antiracism and equity to the forefront of their conversations about how they go about it. Before the pandemic, Black, Latinx, and economically disadvantaged students and communities were already underserved. With the expectation of budget cuts, the outlook for their education in the coming months is dreary; but it does not have to be so in reality. This process will not be easy, but it will be worth it. Centering antiracism, equity, and humanity presents an opportunity for education to be liberating, and for this nation to finally do right by its most vulnerable students.