Back to School in the Time of Corona, Take 2
August 23, 2021
Back-to-School season is tinged with precariousness this year. While Delta variant cases surge, many schools are reopening and resuming in-person classes. Even though the Biden administration announced plans to offer COVID booster shots in September, the fact remains that conditions at institutions of learning aren’t safe or fully resourced. We asked some of our authors what they would like folks to be aware of on the education front as students and educators return to the classroom. And given our pandemic reality, we also asked them how they think schools could take this opportunity to re-envision themselves for a better, post-COVID future.
Billions of dollars in federal COVID relief funds are heading to local public-school districts, but administrators in these districts have few good ideas of where to put the money. There was already a teacher shortage; more teachers are not available to hire. Tech companies selling often useless online “solutions” will likely rake in huge profits. But a proven, crucial use for some significant part of these funds is at hand, though rarely discussed. Put the money directly into the pockets of high school students by employing them to share knowledge and skills with their peers and younger children. They can be paid to teach or use anything they know: solving an equation, making a video, putting on a play, running a sports league, doing a dance, speaking another language (including ASL), reading Braille, collecting oral histories from elders in the neighborhood, fixing a bike, and on and on. The “proven” part is that meaningful employment in high school leads to many great outcomes: high school and college completion, higher lifetime earnings, more stable marriages, better health, and more. And of course, the young people being taught reap all kinds of benefits as well. The key to rethinking American education is to understand that the students already in high school are the culturally informed experts we currently think we lack. Pay them, and they’ll start teaching right away.
—Jay Gillen, The Power in the Room: Radical Education Through Youth Organizing and Employment
I am scared as hell for my nieces and nephews and for all the wonderful teachers I know who are returning to schools. At the same time, this is an opportunity to reimagine education, and make it more equitable for the most marginalized. Now is the time for radical change in how we approach schooling for our young people.
—Kyle T. Mays, An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States
The United States has experienced the Global Pandemic as a horrific tragedy. But for the nation’s fatal embrace of “profits over people,” we could have avoided hundreds of thousands of agonizing deaths. What should have been a clarion call for re-examining the nation’s flawed institutions instead became a debate about “science vs. anti-science,” as if our problems were a matter of semantics instead of the crushing racial and class oppressions that magnify the devastating impact of COVID-19 on working class African American, Latinx, Asian, and immigrant communities.
As educators and students by the millions return to unsafe and under-resourced classrooms, we must carry forward the lessons of the global Black Lives Matter movement and fight harder than ever to end systemic racism, homophobia, and economic injustice. As teachers, we must practice compassion, patience, and antiracism in our classrooms. We should embrace lifelong learning and remember that our students, no matter how ‘disadvantaged,’ bring new forms of wisdom and dissident knowledge into our classrooms. These forms of knowledge “from below” are superior in intellectual content and liberatory potential than the ideologies of the corrupt status quo in this society. ¡La lucha continúa!
—Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the United States
The back-to-school pictures this year on social media carried an unmistakable tone of worry that tempered the excitement of back-to-school routines. Children’s infection rates are skyrocketing with Delta variant of COVID-19, many schools have shifted from in-person to quarantine or back to online after positive cases surfaced quickly. What explains this seemingly haphazard collection of steps and missteps? In keeping with the deeply regional control over education policies that are still consistently imbued with nationalist narratives of boot-strap grit and individualism, schools are reopening as petri dishes in which those narratives are overriding the ability to say “We reopened too quickly” or “There is still so much we don’t know about this virus” or perhaps the most important statement “We are not going to run real-time experiments on people, including children.” Universities have been making strong plans to fully reopen face-to-face instruction, with a mixture of requiring vaccinated status and masks. Those hallowed halls, much like K-12 districts, are announcing changes to teach remotely days before course start; meanwhile, students are arriving on campus.
The much decried ‘learning loss’ pales in comparison to the literal loss of life. A sad but reasonable observation is that it may take the chaos of schools reopening and full beds in pediatric units of hospitals to sober a ‘COVID fatigued’ society to revisit what it claims to be its core values and actually enact them. We have, still, the opportunity and responsibility to learn the foundational lesson of this pandemic: everything we do affects others.
—Leigh Patel, No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education