Closed or Open School Doors?

Before we start, please expend some mental energy learning about what is happening in Louisiana as they recover from Hurricane Ida, Haiti and their recent earthquake, the refugees fleeing and now stuck in Afghanistan, and the Supreme Court decision that effectively bans abortions in Texas. These topics deserve a lot of attention and people much smarter than me are reporting and commenting on them – take a moment to learn more and take actions to support the causes.

Black and white photo of parents standing on grassy knoll watching a group of kids through a fence. Other students walking by. Photo by E. Okuno.

It is the start of another school year. Like last school year, this one is atypical because COVID is still raging and the delta variant is uber contagious. Yet many school districts have students back on campus with a lot of mitigation and precautions in place – face masks, vaccine mandates for staff, social distancing, etc. As a parent I’m grateful for these precautions and hoping they work to keep COVID from spreading in schools.

As a parent and as an education advocate, I’m really concerned with the impact some of these mitigation efforts will have long term on our schools. Right now, schools are limited who has physical access to the school. From an intellectual standpoint I can understand this – fewer people congregating the lower chance of COVID exposure and spread. The other side of my brain and heart questions if this logic is enough to keep the practice in place. We’ve fought and worked so long to pry open schools for families to feel like they belong there, that they are welcomed into their student’s education, and to create a connection. Currently, the unofficial message is “You can come, but you can’t cross this threshold. Trust us to keep your kids safe.”

While many parents may trust the school system and schools to keep children safe, we have to remember that experience and expectation isn’t true for all. Historically schools were used as a tool and weapon against communities of color. In the US and Canada Indian Boarding Schools tore families apart and caused cultural genocide. If we look at discipline data we can see Black and Brown students are overly disciplined as compared to their demographics in schools.

Many schools have, and continue to, work to find new ways to engage with families and keep them involved. I appreciate these efforts, but I still have a nagging feeling the closed doors and locks are detrimental in a different way.


Trust is a fragile being. Right now schools are asking parents to put a lot of blind trust into the system to keep our kids safe. For families that didn’t have a good experience with schools either historically or more recently, to say you can’t enter the school is a hard message to hear. These anxieties will show up in many different ways, and I hope we don’t blame students or their families for how they manifest.

Schools need to find ways to bring the school experience back out to families. During COVID remote learning, many families had school in their homes on a screen, but that didn’t lead to authentic connections. Prior school years families were asked to come to the school, which lead to standard engagement. We need to find the spot where schools dig deeper and engage with families in ways that leads to relationships built. Locked school doors, staying on one side of the fence, and only hearing from the school when there is a problem doesn’t promote relationships.

Even with COVID and health and safety protocols in place, we need to find new and maybe better ways of building relationships and trust.

Investing Back

Schools also need to invest back in people- and communities of color. Many communities of color have invested heavily in trying to make schools work for our kids over generations. This is a moment to dig deep and find meaningful ways to invest back into the community so families feel a sense of connection to the school – especially since we can’t physically enter.

Investing back into the community means understanding the student community and surrounding community. Are you teaching about the local cultures by first understanding who is here? Earlier today my colleague told me about how using disaggregated student data exposed that some ethnic groups may have high rates of bilingualism, but when aggregated this gets lost. Investing back in the community means finding these heritage language speakers and asking about their experiences and sharing it with others.

Please also don’t go for the easy or token ways of reaching out. Dig deeper and look for ways that build authentic relationships. Co-create with your student and family community, find supporters from the broader community and create with them too. I totally get this year is hard with so much new, but take a baby step to do some of these things, as a broader community we want to help but with the doors closed we need to be invited into new ways of helping you.

I’m sure you all can think of ways of building relationships and investing in the students and families and community my tired brain can’t fathom right now.

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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.