Last year, my school was ranked no. 1 in the state. That same week, two of my classmates were punished for circulating an image in which they wore blackface and used hate-filled language toward the Black community. This wasn’t an isolated incident. My school’s lack of diversity is impossible to ignore — 3.5% of the student body is Black.
As a student journalist, I proposed a roundtable discussing race relations in our community and approached the principal to reserve the school’s library for an hour. I knew when I walked into his office and saw him flanked by three assistant principals that they saw my initiative as trouble. My co-writer and I were grilled for half an hour on why we were calling attention to the issue of racism in our school system.
At one point in the conversation, an administrator interjected and pointedly questioned our motives. On the record, she told us that she thought we would be “fabricating a story,” before justifying to us that “plenty” of Black students had visited her office and told her that they felt very comfortable at our school as students of color.
My experience took place a year ago, when faculty still had a direct pipeline to listen to student concerns. Now, it’s even more difficult for administrators to create a conducive environment for student agency: teachers are struggling through distance learning, and some students are finding it difficult to express their grief and anger over racist incidents in their communities and in the country. Nonetheless, issues of racial justice, along with mental health, special education needs, and student harassment, shouldn’t be put on hold just because our education system lies in disarray from the COVID-19 crisis.
At this critical juncture in our history, it seems that many administrators and faculty are woefully unprepared to listen to and address the growing needs of our students — at the very moment when we need them most.
When teachers around the country greet students in the fall, whether it’s online or in-person or a complicated mixture of the two, they won’t be conversing with the same students they left in March. There has arguably never been a period of such widespread, sustained trauma for students. Furthermore, there’s a significant portion of the student population forced into a living environment with food instability, homelessness, and financial struggles.
Before the COVID-19 crisis began, education officials had already been leaving students out of important decision-making processes. Now, they’re faced with an even more basic question: How do they address months of lost instruction time while simultaneously confronting the systemic racism rooted in school cultures and institutions?
There are conversations about graduation requirements, a transition to return to more intensive learning, and crafting anti-racism curricula that are being held in virtual meetings by school officials around the country. If administrators want flexible and creative solutions to maintain a continuation of learning that has students committed and engaged, they should first give students a seat at those tables. Including stakeholders from diverse backgrounds will ensure that no student is left behind in this new landscape. Moreover, such conversations would give young people a better sense of agency over their education, potentially leading to more motivation and commitment to learn.
Students are in the streets, demanding racial justice reforms and changes to curriculum and school culture that leaves out or discriminates against the Black community. With the pandemic stifling dialogue, will administrators step up and provide an open ear for those conversations, along with creating established spaces to hear student voices?
Students have already demonstrated that they want to help districts shoulder some of the burden caused by limited resources. News outlets have reported on teens in Florida that are helping their peers and teachers with technical support as they engage in distance learning. In Massachusetts, students are part of a similar initiative and even receiving school credit for their work.
The fall will be a difficult transition for most schools, as some could continue online or with aspects of virtual learning, others could find some students months behind on content, and all schools will undoubtedly notice a change in students’ behavior after months of sustained trauma.
There’s no universal policy or straightforward solution that administrators can follow as they work to reopen schools in the fall. But as they expeditiously make plans for the next school year and schedule in time to meet with resource teachers and building services and counselors, the first names on that list should be the stakeholders who have the most to say yet are the most often left out of the conversation: students.