As teachers who are in it for the long haul, we believe in seizing this moment as an opportunity to design more just and humane schools that heal and empower our most marginalized students and their communities.
September 9, 2020
The following is a special bonus feature in Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities, published before NYC public schools prepare to open on September 21.
In March of 2020, the nation’s largest school system was openly debating whether schools should shut down completely. For middle school teachers like us, March is usually a time to get students ready for statewide exams, opposition to high-stakes standardized tests notwithstanding. It is a time where our students feel a more intense pressure to perform on these assessments, as they’re usually told that they will help or harm their chances of moving to the next grade. When a global pandemic swept unto our shores, we needed to quickly reconfigure our expectations. Schools became a central site of contention around how to best address this crisis. Many said that schools should immediately be closed to inhibit the spread of the virus, while others were concerned with how parents would get childcare without the consistent service public schools provide families. These concerns were especially urgent for those that the state deemed “essential workers,” such as grocery store workers and transit workers. Teachers generally came at odds with this position as the coronavirus cases among peers and colleagues rose, leaving us to wonder whether we would also be put in the crosshairs of this life-or-death matter. New York City’s educators necessarily splintered off from other workers—especially of color—while fighting against a virus that vice-gripped the city.
As rank-and-file educators threatened to stage a citywide sickout, it became more apparent that New York City would have to shut down schools. The bickering continued as parents of color were pitted against educators (many of whom are also parents) by federal, state, and city officials. As COVID-19 cases and deaths mounted, educators continued to go into empty buildings, without students, for what the Department of Education deemed professional development, readying ourselves for virtual instruction. As sirens blared in our neighborhoods, we managed to film our lessons, host live virtual sessions, and assess all sorts of digital student work to replicate the function of the nation’s largest public school system.
For those of us who serve at perpetually underfunded public schools that are ill-equipped to manage even a common flu outbreak, we knew the public health crisis and subsequent fight this global pandemic would bring. How are we to feel protected by a system that has long failed to meet our most basic physiological and safety needs? With the attention of those previously unharmed by the status quo, we began to ask, why did it take a global pandemic to secure the soap, nurses, working windows, air conditioning, outdoor spaces, and smaller class sizes that we have needed all along? And with renewed strength from the national uprisings for racial justice, we began to hope, will this be our chance to secure the counselors, BIPOC teachers, and culturally responsive curriculum we have always demanded? Will this be our opportunity to achieve equity in our public schools?
The debate on reopening schools here in NYC has revealed and intensified a fundamental lack of trust between those who have power, and those who do not; between those who have choices, and those who do not; between those who have been cared for, and those who have not. Without that foundational trust, any short term safety plan will only serve as a bandaid to hide wounds that have festered for generations. We believe this trust can only be built by prioritizing the needs of the communities that have been most oppressed, as these communities have always bore witness to the foundational weaknesses and cracks in our education system.
The tale of “two cities” has always been rife with inequity. Even if all the conditions for school reopening are met, we have a trust gap that can’t be rectified with press conferences. We must do better.
As teachers who are in it for the long haul, we believe in seizing this moment as an opportunity to design more just and humane schools that heal and empower our most marginalized students and their communities. We believe that timing is critical to building a foundational trust as we move forward into an increasingly uncertain and vulnerable future. We are 100 percent in support of the demand for more school nurses, more counselors and social workers, better ventilation systems, filled soap dispensers and sanitary bathrooms, cleaning supplies in classrooms, and smaller class sizes. We also recognize these demands as part of a much larger—and longer—movement toward health justice, culturally responsive and sustaining education, abolitionist teaching, and the 66-year-old fight for real integration. This must be a movement toward an all-loving education system that recognizes the critical importance of scientifically grounded physiological safety alongside socio-emotional feelings of safety.
Those of us who work in public education are all too familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for learning, which grew from Abraham Maslow’s learnings from the culturally advanced egalitarian Blackfoot community. And yet, we teachers are routinely challenged to turn a blind eye to the base of that pyramid: physiological and safety needs. We are vulnerable to the desensitization of perpetual disinvestment in school communities, and the normalization of substandard conditions. We don’t flinch when our school loses funding, or when we lose our Teacher’s Choice, because in the same breath we write our own DonorsChoose grants for those cleaning supplies and create Amazon lists for social media to clear. Our students come to class with their hoods up and their heads down, and yet, we teachers are trained to tell our students, “Take your hood down and sit up!” rather than to ask “You OK?” Our classroom thermometers read at 91℉ in the dead of winter from broken thermostats, with the few functional windows cracked open to catch a breath. (Fact: facilities managers burn fuel to prove and secure demand.) Alas, that other half of the class put their head down.
Yet, we teachers hold back from complaining. We know all too well to choose our battles carefully. We’ve been flexible for decades.
With overfilled, poorly ventilated, under-resourced, under-loved classrooms, we know too well that by marching onward as the heroic soldiers we’ve been conveniently labeled as, we will not achieve justice. We will not build trust. For many of us teachers of color, who were formerly students of color in a public education system that has failed to recognize our full humanity, we will gather the strength of the global Black Lives Matter movement to love ourselves fully, and to demand what we truly deserve. We take this moment to stop upholding long standing structures, and instead create entirely new foundations, so that our own classrooms are not the only safe havens for fostering love and self-actualization. So that we can open our classroom doors to hallways, blocks, and neighborhoods that love our students, and love us. So that our schools become hubs where resources are most concentrated and where social change begins; and that which feeds a learning and transformation that thrives most within the community it serves.
We believe that the now delayed reopening of school on September 21 will continue to push leaders to enact, at best, cursory safety protocols deprived of trust. We recognize charging forward as an attempt to silence the child care crisis that will set us further back. We believe that in order to stop the vicious cycle of reacting to inequity with more inequity, we must abolish the systems that have always made school an unsafe place for our Black and Brown students (who make up the majority of NYC public school students), and for us as teachers of color. We cannot buy into the false division of families of color vs. teachers, as we, especially we teachers of color, have and will continue to be critical to transforming our schools into affirming and empowering spaces for all of our students. Our health and safety sit at the base of the pyramid toward building a more just public school system, and society.
The pandemic reveals both the decades-old inequities that have run rampant in NYC public schools and how quickly we can relinquish its discriminatory structures, like high-stakes testing. The pandemic reveals that we can ensure that all of our children have access to WiFi enabled iPads; that resources can be more equitably distributed. The pandemic reveals the creative, compassionate, intellectual, and deeply complex work we educators do, day in and day out, to strengthen our communities. The pandemic reveals that we matter.
Educators of color and conscience can no longer serve as “black sheep” when our experience and expertise has prepared us for the major crises of our nation. Our society must turn our attention to exacerbated income inequality, racial uprisings, and the bigotry across multiple identities that have heightened the stakes of this global pandemic. We have not, and will not, put our life’s work at risk for COVID-19. Doing so would be antithetical to the critical consciousness, self-love, self-advocacy, and community we strive to nurture within and among our own students. We won’t take the bait.
In the words of Dr. Bettina Love, “The pandemic has shown us a hand that they were willing to play in crisis that they were never willing to play before.”
No, we’re not going back.
Innovation and creativity aren’t just the provinces of technology; they’re also the people’s work. In order to assure that our most vulnerable and marginalized students get the education they deserve during a global pandemic, our structures must change. Let’s be that change.
Slow Down To Save Lives: Sign On Letter: Sign on to this letter from a coalition of NYC-based public school students, parents, teachers, school leaders, advocates, and elected officials who are demanding Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, UFT President Mulgrew, and Chancellor Carranza delay reopening school buildings, fully fund our schools, and invest in a safer, more equitable plan for NYC students that includes equitable remote learning, an expansion of REC centers and low-risk alternatives like outdoor learning.
EduColor mobilizes advocates nationwide around issues of educational equity, agency, and justice. We amplify the works and ideas of students, educators, and communities of color through supportive on- and off-line networks and professional development.