“This crisis ain’t started yesterday, we’ve been in a crisis all of our lives” (Tuesday, March 17)
Days before, we were all sitting together at an independent study high school in East Los Angeles, wondering what would become of what felt like a troubling and uncertain reality. Now, we were all seeing each other through a screen, becoming familiar with what would become a large and strange part of our lives: Zoom. We started class by checking in to hear how everyone was feeling and what their thoughts were on the burgeoning “crisis”. Their responses were sobering, honest, and filled with wisdom that I have learned to appreciate as I have spent time with them for the last couple of years.
“How do I feel? I feel strange, yes, this is horrible, but it ain’t right that now, they suddenly care about human life when they have been throwing people away for forever”, another shared. “They tellin’ us to stay home, but what about those of us who don’t have one, or how are we supposed to make any money if we can’t go nowhere?”
A few days earlier, on Friday March 13th, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted to declare a state of emergency. It was a difficult decision. Shutting down the nation’s second largest school districts without a clear plan for educating its 700,000 students was not a decision to be taken lightly (New York Times, 2020). But with images of the pandemic ravaging communities across the world, the Board quickly decided that it had no alternative. As more and more school districts began to close, the country was forced to come to terms with a new reality. Public schools, an institution frequently maligned for its failings, and too often simply taken for granted, was suddenly recognized as essential and indispensable.
Creating a pause in a world that was moving at a dizzying pace, this “crisis” is forcing many to pause and reflect on what we once considered “normal”. One thing is for certain: the world as we’ve known it will be very different by the end of this pandemic. As we endure the uncertainty of quarantine we must ask ourselves what kind of world we want to return to. For those well aware of the inequity and unfairness that characterized schools in America prior to the crisis this is also a time to ask: could this be an opportunity through which we can bring about educational justice?
School was the answer, but what was the question?
Besides a select few, many of us take schools for granted. How often do we spend time thinking deeply about the purpose of school or in their role in holding the fabric of contemporary life together? For many, schools are what children and youth across the world are “supposed-to-do”: necessary for democracy, mobility (we hope), progress (maybe), and the future of our society itself. For Black, Brown, Native, and other groups of marginalized students, schools represent an institution with a long, stubborn legacy of injustice; a space that has held both dreams of liberation and justice, and nightmares of dismissal, assimilation, social reproduction, segregation, and violence towards their beings, their cultures, and their communities.
What has changed?
For the last couple of weeks, policy-makers and leaders across the country have begun issuing stay-at-home orders, implementing social distancing guidelines, and closing all non-essential institutions and gatherings. With these orders, everyday life has fundamentally changed. With regard to schools, where they were once rendered ordinary and a constant of life, policy makers, parents and others have been forced to reevaluate and re-think what our lives are like without schools. Not only have tens of millions of families across the country had to play an active role in the “schooling” of their children, but the void left by schools is being felt across multiple dimensions of social, economic, and community life. Schools aren’t just places where young people learn; they can also be places of community and connection, physical and emotional safety, shelter and food, democracy and deliberation. In addition, the economy as-is cannot function without them, unless we devise another way to ensure that children are supervised while their parents are at work.
Since the closing of schools, everyone has had to adapt. In an attempt to fill the vacuum created by their absence, schools have quickly transformed themselves into sites for food distribution, emotional and mental health support, and community organizing. Los Angeles Unified School District and New York City Public Schools, the two largest school districts in the U.S., have established more than 450 grab-and-go centers where they serve free meals to students, families, and temporary homeless shelters, with thousands of their employees volunteering to serve meals.
Thousands of teachers are being asked to re-create their roles. They must re-design and re-plan their lessons to make them suitable for virtual learning, and they must also find time to build to develop long needed partnerships with parents and students, for without them it will not be possible to create new ways to ensure home learning, activities for social and emotional health, and community building exercises.
Teachers, support staff, school leaders, and a host of volunteers, many of whom are, and have been for a long time, underpaid and underappreciated, form a complex architecture of support that is vital to the health and wellbeing of children and the community. Those who work at under-resourced schools in marginalized communities, have for a long time worked at the front lines of a complex intersection of social issues and challenges. These conditions, all of which have been raised and protested for decades, have led to massive rates of burnout and attrition, and often frustration and heartbreak.
At the same time, this moment has made an all-too-familiar truth ever more apparent: in times of crisis, those who are already marginalized end up being impacted and suffering the most. The shift to online learning has not only exacerbated existing inequities, leaving those who were already behind further behind. It has raised important questions about access, pedagogy, the social conditions around schools, and the purpose of schooling itself. On April 1st, four in ten U.S. teens reported that they haven’t done online learning since schools closed (NPR, 2020). Resource and access gaps, already unacceptable before, have also broadened. Before the pandemic, about 12 million students had no broadband access at home. Homework, which had already been pointed out as an issue of equity, has now become the primary mode of schooling. School districts have begun purchasing laptops, hotspots, and making attempts to bridge the digital divide and issues of inequitable access. However, many of these have proven insufficient, and gaps in learning have grown wider. To this day, 47% of public school students have not attended a class, compared to 18% of private school students. Since schools closed, the original cracks in the system have become chasms; lots of students have gone “missing” and educators’ efforts to reach out have been largely unsuccessful (Sawchuck and Samuels, 2020).
Thinking beyond the “academics,” this crisis has brought a multitude of hardships that have disproportionately impacted marginalized students, students of color, special education students, and financially-poor students. To be clear, this crisis did not start with the pandemic. In 2017-2018 there were 1.5 million homeless students. In 2018, 40% of Americans could not come up with $400 to cover an emergency (Federal Reserve, 2019). Almost 80% of American workers live pay-check to pay-check. They often work multiple jobs and operate under increasingly precarious conditions, all of which have been heightened by the current pandemic.
Activists, education scholars, and those who witness the daily life and realities of schools across the country have been raising repeated alarms on the injustices and the social conditions that negatively impact the wellbeing and learning of students, families, and school communities. Despite repeated studies disproving theories and explanations that “blame” working class and marginalized peoples for their children’s “outcomes”, unjust and oppressive conditions have been consistently pushed out of sight and mind. Ironically with this pandemic, those same people, often relegated to the shadows and treated as expendable, are now being deemed “essential” and celebrated — emptily — as the backbone of our society. Now, they have to support the schooling of their children, put themselves at risk to keep jobs that cannot be done “at-home”, and face a hard choice between endangering themselves and their families and staying afloat.
How is this an opportunity?
Social change and the struggle for justice is long, arduous, and complex. Similarly, transforming schools and the struggle for educational justice, an endeavor to which many of us have committed our lives, often feels like steering a massive ship, pushed forward by the momentum of history, normality, a lack of political will, and the interests of those with power. This perceived “impossibility” has led to what many have called a process of endless tinkering, resulting in “too much reform and so little change” (Payne, 2007).
Economist Milton Friedman, in one of the few things that he got right (as Naomi Klein reminds us), said that “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change and that when it occurs the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”. Times of crisis can turn seemingly impossible ideas into not only possible but “necessary.” When collectively recognized, they remind us of two often neglected, and important truths: first, that a lot of what is wrong in the world is actually made and sustained by us; and second, that when necessary, radical change can happen quite quickly. Crises remind us of our incredible ability to adapt, change, and highlight the fragility of what a couple of weeks ago was unchangeable.
Which ideas are floating around?
Using the 2008 economic crisis as a metaphor, will this be a moment of bank bailouts, corporate bonuses and buybacks that will utilize the public’s disorientation and further the agenda of those with power and privilege, or a moment of deep structural transformation and discourses of human rights, collective safety nets, and justice? Will this be a moment where we further assert and enact our belief in the human right to health, livelihood, and an equitable, free, affirming, and liberatory education, or to further enrich the already grotesquely wealthy?
Will this be another New Orleans or Puerto Rico, where tragedy is used to further disinvest in our public schools, push neoliberal agendas, and take away the social institutions that so many have fought for? Will we continue to neglect the conditions around schools that we know have negatively impacted marginalized children, youth, and families and exacerbated disparities? Or will we ignore these, deluding ourselves with the notion that we live in a meritocratic society where social mobility is determined by individual talent and effort? Will we be brave enough to talk about race and education, recognizing the historical inequities and structural and systemic racism that continues to impact children and youth of color?
Can this be a time to reorganize our schools around values of equity, justice and democracy?
These are all possibilities. Drawing parallels between the current moment and the times of the French Revolution, Rebecca Spang writes that much of what was true of revolutionary France in 1789 and 1790 is true of the United States today. We primarily think of radical change through its connection with visionary leaders and outraged crowds, not viruses or markets. And while at the moment history might feel like it is out of our hands, revolutions are in actuality periods in which social actors (us) with different agendas fuse into stable constellations of ideas. Again, the question might be: whose ideas?
Despite our collective dismissal, groups and collectives of students, families, teachers, and others have been, for a long time, creating visions, plans, and actively fighting for more just and equitable schools. Now that everybody is paying attention, it is time to join them.
Having conversations with my teacher friends and colleagues over the last couple of weeks has been profound. Many have shared that this time, besides an opportunity to take a breath, has also been an opportunity to be creative. With the tyrannical gaze of tests, grades, and bells out of the way, some parents, teachers and students are finding creative ways to think about this moment, learn about themselves, the world, and reflect in ways that “schooling” did more to prevent than to foster. At the same time, the role of schools as community centers, as places where people belong, places where we practice relationships, support for each other, places where we practice democracy, where we learn to be with each other, are heavily missed. Social distancing, at least in its physical form, has reminded us of both, the beauty of people, and the power of schools as places where we can deliberately build community, which many of us now know is desperately needed. Schools are not only places where we drop our kids so that we can go to work, but are instrumental in countering the alienation and anomie that pervades society and has been made even worse since the crisis.
First and foremost, this is a time to come together and ensure we take care and hold space to protect and support those who are going to be most impacted by this. Concurrently, we must ground what we do today recognizing what young people are quick to remind us: “This crisis ain’t started yesterday, we’ve been in a crisis all of our lives.”
For the last decades, we seem to have been frantically chasing the world, never to catch up. We have been reforming schools to accommodate the shifting demands of a world that cares about profit, not people. Despite clear and egregious disparities, we have continued to “do” school; perpetuating its role in the reproduction of injustice rather than its role in its interruption. The endless labor of those fighting for educational justice have given us ideas, examples, and imaginaries that are now “floating around.” Schools will not reopen until the Fall, and we know that after this crisis, the world will be different. What kind of “different” will be up to us. We must seize upon this moment so that we do not go back to normal, but back to better.
In solidarity and appreciation,
About the Author: Miguel Casar is a student, teacher, and writer who believes in the transformational potential of re-claiming and re-imagining schools as public spaces of justice, community, and liberation. He is PhD student at the University of California Los Angeles, a lecturer at California State University-Dominguez Hills and a doctoral researcher at the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. His work focuses on understanding and challenging the role of schools in the perpetuation of injustice, violence, social stratification.
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