Some Students Should Go to School, Most Should Stay Home

Socially Just Schooling in the Time of Covid-19

single empty school desk

One of the guidelines I have used for many years in my work with educators trying to make their schools, classrooms, and districts more socially just is to practice both/and thinking. Both/and thinking contrasts with the dominant tendency to search for either/or solutions. For example, an either/or approach frames the achievement gap as being about race or class. “Don’t you think the problem is really poverty, not race?” educators ask when we’re looking at test score data. In contrast, both/and thinking frames the achievement and opportunity gap as being about the ways race and class (and many other things) are inextricably linked in our country. Both/and thinking recognizes­ that when it comes to issues of social justice, the answers are almost always more complicated than we think.

THE PROBLEM

Currently, the U.S. education debate is stuck in an either/or trap — either we open schools for face-to-face instruction, or we pursue only online teaching and learning. People from both camps say their thinking is informed by a commitment to equity and social justice. Those who think schools must open argue that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, low-income and disabled students are at severe risk in terms of academic achievement, access to food, access to supervision, and access to services if schools do not open face-to-face. Those who think it is medically unsafe to open schools argue that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, low-income and disabled students and families are those most likely to contract and die from Covid-19 should there be an outbreak. In the past few weeks, this national debate has come to a head as the Trump administration and some districts have demanded that schools open, while many educators, their unions, and other school districts have pushed back.

Who are you?

I am a Black woman, a researcher and educator with a doctoral degree and MSW, and a mother of school-aged children — one who has a disability — trying to balance work with no schooling or childcare relief since March 11, 2020. I have written two books about race and schools, Those Kids, Our Schools: Race and Reform in an American High School and Race Dialogues: A Facilitator’s Guide to Tackling the the Elephant in the Classroom. For the past decade I have worked as a social justice educator and consultant in schools across Michigan. My work has largely focused on issues of racial and economic justice for Black, Indigenous and other students of color as well as low-income students, LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities.

What do you know about the consequences of not opening schools?

My professional role in education means that I am very concerned about the consequences of not holding school in person for the students and families who are already most marginalized. I know there is a real risk of increasing achievement and opportunity gaps. I know that many of our most marginalized students — those who are housing insecure, food insecure, or living in situations of abuse or neglect — depend on schools for food, shelter, and social services. I know that parents and families of many children may not be able to keep the jobs that feed them if there is no in-person school option to provide childcare. I know that not all families have access to reliable internet or computers. I know that some LGBTQIA+ students only find respite and safe space at school. And I know that students with disabilities depend on schools to provide them with all kinds of supports we cannot replicate online. Going months (or an entire school year) without access to the learning, lunches, and love schools provide may have devastating consequences for the communities that are already most vulnerable. I also know that long before the pandemic, the most marginalized students were unlikely to attain the kinds of academic and economic success we wish, or have positive school experiences, because our schools and our country were already failing them in ways too numerous to list.

What do you know about the risks of Covid-19?

I am also a bit nerdy when it comes to research and data and have been rather obsessively consuming the news and scientific studies on Covid-19. I know that Covid-19 is a real and existential crisis to human life. I know that it is a stealthy virus that people can carry and spread without ever having symptoms themselves. I know that researchers are only just coming to understand what exactly Covid-19 is — perhaps more a blood vessel disease than a respiratory one; a virus transmitted by droplets and aerosols; a virus that may be contracted through the eyes, not just the mouth or nose; a disease that kills some and may permanently disable others; a disease that has created a whole class of “long-haulers” who have been sick for months with no end in sight; a disease that may attack the brain and result in strokes for those who were otherwise symptom free; a disease that manifests in scary, life-threatening symptoms in some children; a disease for which immunity may not last long. I know that we still do not understand the long-term consequences of Covid-19 exposure, but it’s looking bad.

I know that the very students and families we are most concerned with when it comes to the risks of keeping schools closed are also those most at risk of contracting Covid-19. I know that the parents and families of students of color and low-income students are more likely to work in jobs in which they are being exposed to Covid-19. I know that if they get Covid-19 they may not be able to keep the jobs they need to feed their families (just as they may not be able to keep them if their kids do not go to school). I know these same families are less likely to have adequate health insurance or healthcare should they get sick. I know that if they make it to the hospital, they are likely to get worse care than their white and middle-class counterparts and are much more likely to die. I know that unlike other countries where schools have opened, U.S. Covid-19 rates are on the rise and are unlikely to recede because of the deep incompetence of our government which has continued to fail to adequately and accurately test, contact trace, mandate masks or consistently do any of the things that would curb the spread. And I know that a vaccine will not be widely available by the time schools are scheduled to start.

What do you know about the struggle of parenting while working?

As a parent of three young children trying to work from home like many middle-class Americans, I know that it is virtually impossible to do so without childcare. I know that to the extent I have been able to work at all it is only because I have a spouse and because we are both working reduced schedules that still include evenings and weekends and a lot of stress. I know that I have recently led groups of educators through zoom trainings while holding a naked 3-year-old and a crying 5-year-old. I know that this is probably not sustainable.

What do you know about the mental health consequences of these decisions?

As a social worker who understands that mental health IS health, I know that many children’s social development and mental health may be at real risk if they do not go to school for a semester or year. I also know that the death or serious illness of a parent, grandparent, sibling or close friend will be traumatic for students and educators — especially if their loved ones are sickened by a virus they brought home from school and a pandemic keeps them from mourning collectively. The post-pandemic world will emerge from the shadows of mass death, sickness and a crumbling economy, and I know that almost nothing we have discussed as a society is adequately grappling with the reality of trauma people will be dealing with, whatever we decide to do about schooling.

What do you know about the impact of these decisions on teachers?

And finally, as an educator, I know the challenge of trying to balance commitment to your job and love for the students and families you serve with commitment to your own family, your own children, and your own health. I know you cannot plan amazing, engaging, enriching, rigorous lessons if you are trying to create three or four different versions — the online version, the in-person version, and the hybrid version. I know teachers cannot teach children online at the same time as they are teaching children in front of them or at the same time as they are supporting their own children who are learning online. I know you cannot do your job well if you are scared you are going to die. I know that if we try to force teachers to work in unsafe conditions, many of them simply will not come back to implement our plans.

What has been left unsaid by those on either side of this debate?

What is left unsaid is that there is a good chance Betsy DeVos and her posse will use this moment to try and privatize education across the nation. They will pursue this immoral mission to destroy public education regardless of what we do in the Fall.

What is also left unsaid is that we will suffer in both versions. Online schooling isn’t that great at supporting academics or mental health, while in-person schooling in which masks must be worn, touching is banned, desks are in rows, small group work isn’t possible, students stay in the same seat and classroom all day long, students can get in trouble for failing to keep masks on or playing tag is also not going to be great for students’ academic progress or mental health. The choice isn’t online schooling or schooling as it was pre-pandemic. The choice is between online schooling and a shell of the version we had. We have no actual evidence that in-person school during Covid-19 will work any better than the online schooling some have decided was a failure. There is no good solution — just band-aids on a broken system.

Can you just give me the summary of all that?

In short: I know that what we are currently dealing with is an absolute disaster of epic proportions with no good answers, no clear sides, and no room for either/or thinking — despite what some leaders and Twitter users suggest. I know that our path forward will need to be more creative than anything I’ve seen proposed by those tasked with doing something.

Here is the dilemma for those of us who care about equity, social justice, and science: there are (at least) two competing justice issues on the table — the risk of not having school for the students most marginalized, and the risk of schools spreading a deadly disease to the students and families who are most marginalized. Choosing to address one inherently worsens the other.

There is no way around this fact. If we focus only on the school losses — academics, social connections, services — we ignore the possibility that our efforts to educate students might kill them or their parents, teachers, siblings, friends — the very people upon which they depend for sustenance and support. And if we are most worried about the spread of this deadly disease, we risk huge numbers of students seeing whatever possible futures they had envisioned going down the drain. And both of these issues are leading to a third — a mental health crisis of a generation of Americans.

A POSSIBLE SOLUTION

What can we glean from these both/ands — these competing demands of justice? What can be done by people who care about kids and educators and health and are not in denial about the reality we are facing? Is there an approach that is actually socially, racially, and economically just? Here’s my proposal (with many elements similar to what others have suggested):

1. Some schools should open. Some students should go.

We should open some buildings for the most marginalized students — those who will not eat without school, those who will not be safe in their homes without school, those who are too young to be left home alone unsupervised but will be left anyway because their parents have no choice but to work in order to feed them, those with disabilities that cannot be supported outside of a school building. And in order to address real economic concerns about things like childcare, these building should be open five days a week for full school days for every student attending.

2. Most schools should stay closed. Most students should stay home.

Anyone who does not fall into these categories of need must stay home so that there is some hope of educating those who truly cannot stay home safely. How do we decide who these students are? Some will be obvious. Others might require an honor system: “Dear Parents, Given the life-threatening risk of Covid-19, we are reserving all in-person school slots for students who have the most pressing needs. Please indicate if one of the following applies….”

3. Open buildings must have mandatory and robust safety protocols.

These buildings can only be open if we do so safely. We cannot open schools that will kill students, teachers, or parents, even if their jobs are on the line. This means that opening can only happen in consultation with public health officials and experts (P-12 educators and administrators do not have the expertise to determine safety in this context. The people with this expertise must be at the table). Minimally, it means regular, accurate, and accessible testing for anyone entering a school building (or even better, an outdoor tent or field for those schools innovative enough to shift learning outside — the much safer place). TEST. TEST. TEST. When the NBA, the White House, or any other entity with adequate resources wants to operate safely, regular testing is the mandatory baseline. If students or staff contract Covid-19 outside of our buildings we should know that very quickly. This would likely require mobile testing sites that go school-to-school or placing nurses in buildings with enough test kits for every person on site, every week. Opening safely also means mandatory masks for anyone for whom they are appropriate, addressing air circulation, bathroom usage, cleaning, social distancing, transportation, and hiring, among other things.

4. Most teaching should happen online with low-risk staff to supervise and engage students in buildings.

Teachers should be focused on one thing right now: transferring their practice to an online model that is as engaging as humanly possible. We have a month to do it. Don’t distract teachers by asking them to come up with three versions of plans when two of them are unlikely to be safe to implement. This means that every student in the country needs high speed internet and computer devices. Compared to some of the other challenges we are facing, this one is easy — we should spend the money to provide both. While most teachers and support staff will be working from home, some staff will be needed to supervise the in-person school buildings where some students will be engaging in online learning. These staff should be well-compensated and given paid sick leave should they or anyone in their households get sick or need to quarantine. They will need to be in categories that have lower risk of death from Covid-19 — younger, no comorbidities, limited exposure to Covid-19, etc. Perhaps they will be AmeriCorps members, college students taking a gap year, or even some eager teachers who would prefer to be in a classroom. And we will need enough of them to have a pool of well-compensated subs when some people inevitably get sick.

5. We should be advocating at state and federal levels for a nationwide investment in our schools and guaranteed basic income for families with children.

Not only should we be advocating for enough funding to support the safe opening of some buildings and classrooms for the most marginalized students, and for access to internet and devices for all students, we should also be demanding a guaranteed basic income for all families. So long as there is a global pandemic and we are offering very limited childcare and school options, we should make sure families have enough income to be able to stay home with their children. If we are asking parents to function as co-teachers in a national online learning endeavor, we should honor their labor, time and contribution to raising the next generation, and pay them to do so. It is not possible to raise and educate children full time if you also have to work another job to take care of your family. And we will all ultimately depend on us getting this right for the next generation.

6. Finally, we should be working with mental health professionals and organizations to put together a robust suite of mental health services made as widely available as possible, as soon as possible, to teachers, children and families. We are all going to need them.

CONCLUSION

So, what is the both/and answer to the question of how we should educate students in the midst of a global pandemic? Make schools work for the students and families who are most on the margins, who are at greatest risk if school buildings remain closed, who cannot meet their basic needs without them. Give these students full days and full weeks so that their families have a reasonable chance of being able to support them. And the rest of us stay home.

Will it require sacrifice? Yes. There will be sacrifices whatever we do. Will many families, including my own, struggle greatly? Yes. This will also be the case whatever we do. But unlike many of the other proposals I’ve seen, at least this response will be both hard and just.

Addendum

Since this article was published, a number of people have correctly observed that some districts have large populations of students who will need in-person schooling while others have very few. First, I should clarify that I do not think we should include every student in special education and every student in a Title I school and every student who qualifies for free or reduced lunch. I am talking about a much narrower group of students. One of my own children is in a special education program in a Title I school, but I don’t think he should receive in-person instruction because we can afford to feed him, there is someone to stay home with him during the day, he is not in immediate risk of abuse or neglect, and he can at least somewhat access his support services online. Second, it is also true that the districts with the most students in need of in-person schooling are those who are likely to have the least funding. This reality highlights how immoral and unjust our system of schooling was even before the pandemic hit. To actually achieve what I propose will not only require partnering with public health officials, lobbying the government for more money, getting community trust and buy-in, but may also require that we rethink and disrupt things like “district boundaries” when it comes to educating students.

Where I live (Detroit, MI), I imagine these conversations will have to take place on a county-wide level in which education leaders work together to determine how many students need to be serviced in-person in the county (which includes many different districts) and then share resources, buildings and staff as necessary to make this happen. There may similarly need to be a sharing of resources to make sure all students have computer devices and high-speed internet. Some may think this sounds impossible. Perhaps it is. But I’d argue it is no more unreasonable than anything else being proposed. The truth is, schooling as we knew it six months ago is over. We are being given the opportunity to re-envision education in a way that works for those we have historically failed. We should try to do so.

Co-Founder of https://www.justiceleaderscollaborative.com/, Author of Those Kids, Our Schools & Race Dialogues, Mother of 3

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