As New York’s schools grapple with the complexity and uncertainty of reopening amid the coronavirus, adhering to health and safety requirements is fundamental — but insufficient. Our strategy for school reopening must address both of what have been called the “dual public health crises” facing the country.
One is COVID-19 — which has exacerbated the pre-existing inequities in our education system and society. The second is entrenched systemic racism in our public institutions — a long-standing crisis that is receiving renewed attention after the police-involved killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black men and women. Our public schools play a consequential role in addressing both.
Whatever form schooling takes — whether in the classroom, remote, or a blend of the two — New York must lead in advancing anti-racist policies and practices in our education system.
Our organizations do not always see eye to eye, but we agree that an equity-driven framework for school reopening is imperative. In the Alliance for Quality Education’s Roadmap to a Just Reopening and Just Schools and The Education Trust — New York’s and our partners’ recommendations for Reopening Stronger: Educational Equity Priorities for Fall 2020, we both call on state education leaders to prioritize anti-racist policies and practices.
What does this look like?
First, provide all students with high-quality instruction. As schools prepare for both in-person and remote learning, educators are working to define what is most important to cover. These decisions should be aligned to inclusive, culturally relevant, anti-racist values that materialize in high-quality learning materials and experiences accompanied by professional learning for teachers, and that empower the voices of students.
Second, address gaping disparities in access to advanced coursework. In the fall, students will enroll in the myriad courses that their schools offer, and some students will be assigned to advanced courses and others will not. In the 2018-19 school year, white students were almost twice as likely to be enrolled in advanced courses as their Black and Latinx peers. All students deserve access to a challenging curriculum that instills the intellectual confidence to persist in their current grade and beyond. All districts should be expected to describe how enrollment in honors, accelerated, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and dual-enrollment courses in middle and high schools, and in gifted and talented programs in elementary schools, will result in greater representation of Black and Latinx students this fall.
Third, close the funding gap that has created a system of haves and have-nots, in which Black and Latinx students disproportionately attend the most under-resourced schools. Black and Latinx students, educators, and communities have been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Many are processing intersecting traumas of stress, grief, and illness. To meet the elevated needs of their communities, schools will require adequate resources in the fall whether students are learning in-person or remotely.
Fourth, dismantle school discipline systems that rely on suspensions and other exclusionary measures that increase instructional loss and contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. New York schools suspend Black students at about four times the rate of their white peers. Students have experienced a significant amount of instructional loss and trauma. The continued use of outdated, punitive discipline would make matters worse. The “Solutions Not Suspensions” agenda calls for a ban on most suspensions for the youngest children while investing in restorative practices that support educators and students.
These proposals represent ways to disrupt the status quo and support students. If reopening plans do not show that schools are taking these steps on their own, state education leaders should use their authority to require that they get it right.
Jasmine Gripper is executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education. Ian Rosenblum is executive director of The Education Trust-New York.