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  • Writer's pictureJulia Cuneo

Was 2020 the Year We Abolished Schools?

When I look back on 2020 and the many, many injustices we’ve collectively faced, I find myself wondering… Was this the year we abolished schools? I don’t mean to suggest that we’ve completed some sort of revolution because clearly there are still schools... But were the seeds of the school abolition movement planted in 2020?

People don’t have the same faith in schools as we did a year ago. One of the consequences of a global crisis is that institutions have been stripped down to the bare bones. They’ve been forced to reveal what matters most to them. What have most schools revealed to us? Not that they are focused on the development, care and nurturing of young minds, rather, in the face of overwhelming pressure, most districts have chosen to warehouse, track and discipline students at all costs. These are the parts of school that have not been allowed to ebb despite crisis after crisis.

In March of 2020, schools had the option to mobilize their massive funding and infrastructure to provide mental health check-ins, a stabilizing presence, emotional support for students in grief, and supplemental activities for staying busy in quarantine. Instead, they spent the next 6 months (and millions of dollars) making sure every student had “a device” so that schools could cram the same curriculum requirements, schedules, and testing standards on teachers and students come fall.

This choice has revealed to students, teachers, and parents what schools truly care about. Oppressive systems begin to crumble when the masses cease to believe in their legitimacy. We are seeing it happen in real-time through the thousands of students and teachers who have learned that schools are not for learning, but for control.

There is no going back from that knowledge. As anti-apartheid activist Steven Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” When students who have been disillusioned about their school’s compassionate intentions return to school buildings, go to college, start working, or send their own children to school, what will happen?

This crisis is, of course, hitting Black communities the hardest. Here in Detroit students are being forced to spend 6 hours in 55-minute classes with 5-minute breaks. They’re experiencing muscle pain, headaches, eye strain, anxiety and insomnia. They’re being put through all of this so their parents can work long hours, and the schools can provide testing data proving their “high standards.”

What if, instead, schools reacted to the pandemic in a way that would put compassion and love first? While individual teachers are making efforts to build community and healing in their virtual classrooms we need a systemic answer that doesn’t rely on the sacrifice of teachers. This starts with canceling all standardized tests.

Of course, we don’t need the Secretary of State or Governors to cancel the tests - we can just choose not to take them or to teach the content they require. We can choose, and many educators are choosing, to give students a break. If we follow this instinct in 2021 and beyond, I believe that we will look back in a few decades and realize we started a revolution in 2020 — a movement toward care, compassion and school abolition.

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