Returning to School during COVID19

Public Artwork at El Centro de la Raza — Seattle, copyright Erin Okuno

School has started for some school districts in the US, and in other places reopening plans with COVID19 still raging are now in planning phases. I’ve followed school reopening plans since it is part of my job, also as a parent of school age children I am intimately entangled in this new way of schooling. I still remember when schools closed in-person instruction in Feb/March 2020. Back then I never would have thought we’d start this school year remotely.

Since school is reopening remotely/virtually for many students I thought I’d share some general trends and thoughts I’m noticing from sitting through reopening meetings, reading a lot of articles, and thoughts as a parent.

Family Engagement – Just because many schools are virtual/remote learning doesn’t mean family engagement stops. In fact right now educators need to double down on staying connected to families overall. Parents/caregivers have always been a child’s first teacher. Now they really are more involved in their children’s education because of stay-at-home orders. Building a relationship with parents/caregivers is an important partnership.

For education systems and educators this means checking your privilege, biases, and digging deep to focus on how race impacts school-family interactions.

If your school is in-person but limiting who enters the school building to limit contact, please remember for many families this doesn’t feel great. For families who have a mistrust of the school system because of historical trauma and racism (e.g. Native American boarding schools, bullying, anti-Blackness by school systems, etc.), sending their children into a building and knowing the doors are not open to visits or their involvement may not feel safe or comfortable.

Re-evaluating priorities — As we think about returning to school, we know school won’t look like it did in February of 2020 – right before many school districts closed in-person instruction. We need to be ok with school not being ‘normal.’ As my friend Carrie reminds me often, ‘normal’ is a social construct, and defaults to white-ableism beliefs.

After schools closed to in-person instruction many school districts pivoted to making sure kids were fed and otherwise safe. One of the first text threads I ended up on was with a partner organization that quickly pivoted to providing hot meals three days a week. A local POC owned restaurant, Super Six, made it clear she wanted to support community efforts and keep her employees working as long as she could. WA-BLOC also wanted to help by feeding their students and families, they raised money and have since paid local POC owned restaurants to keep their meal sites going. This new ‘normal’ is an important way of redefining priorities.

Re-evaluating our priorities is an important step as we navigate the new normal. As parents/caregivers, educators, and community members this moment is a rare gift of time to think about how do we want to redefine our thinking. I totally understand how exhausting it is to be forced out of comfort zones, to have to search for new answers, to navigate new ways of working (hello, Zoom-fatigue), to having people/kids/pets constantly around (hello again, introvert who likes alone time is now rarely alone). Despite all of this we can redefine our thinking to prioritize anti-racism ways of acting, undoing systems that uphold privilege. Now is a great time to rethink our priorities.

Don’t Pit People Against Each Other — As we return to school, decisions will be made to prioritize services. Such as who gets laptops first, which students should return to in-person instruction first, how to provide services to disabled students, etc. Hard decisions need to be made and I don’t envy people who have to make them.

As decisions are made it is important not to pit people against each other. As an example, we shouldn’t say one essential worker is more valuable than another. A doctor isn’t more deserving of status than a delivery driver or a grocery store cashier. If you are confused by this thinking, here is an example: “But the doctor saves lives…” yes, AND the childcare worker who makes just above minimum wage who is watching children of the doctor and other essential workers children needs support too. Saying one is more important excuses the educational system (and other systems) from creating a wholistic community centric approach to education. The burden should be put back on the system and not individuals to fight for inadequate resources. This is where we value our community as a whole and we also remember to think about privilege, racial justice needs, and how to support racial equity values that lead to racial justice.

What to do – Hold true to racial equity and racial justice principles and decision making — Several friends complained how they’re tired of the phrase “Students furthest from educational justice.” I had to laugh and confess I am the original author of that phrase. A quick Twitter search will yield a tweets of people saying “Ok, I guess my [white] kid isn’t going to get to go back to school.” The phrase has been co-opted, but overall the sentiment still needs to be held to. We need to think about students furthest from justice and prioritize their needs first, yes white children will still be served.

Earlier in the post I wrote don’t pit people against each other, which is true, AND we need to make accommodations and provisions for Black and Brown students who are feeling the effects of the pandemic and the impact of other social violence – violence against Black people, anti-immigration policies, Indigenous erasure, anti-Asian racism due to COVID19, etc. Remember returning to school isn’t an equal experience for every student. Students have experienced COVID19 in many different ways, some more acutely than others, such as COVID19 illnesses and deaths in families, housing instability, job loss, food instability, technology gaps, socialization absences, etc. We need to understand these experiences, build relationships with our POC families, and make sure they are ok. We can’t close achievement gaps until we close relationship gaps.

Double down on learning about race and its impact on education. We all have spheres of influence we can impact with smarter thinking and decision making. Push for racial justice everywhere you can. Call it out, ask questions, support each other. We can make returning to school more racially just if we try.

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