Schools Aren’t Safe from Covid, and They Weren’t Safe Before
I’m not the first person to say it and I won’t be the last: The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare all of the festering inequalities of our society. As one of my intellectual crushes, adrienne maree brown, counsels, “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”
At the center of many of these debates is an important question: What will we do with the children? In the United States, millions of young people go to school every day, Monday through Friday, sunup to sundown. We rely on these mammoth institutions - under funded and over crowded - to feed and supervise young people while their parents work long hours. Without schools to take on these roles, the entire scheme collapses in on itself.
The debate always begins with the same premise: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, schools are unsafe. How do we protect staff and students from the virus while meting out the standardized curriculum and evaluation processes that are expected of us?
The first problem here is that the premise is wrong. Schools are not unsafe because of the coronavirus pandemic - they were unsafe long before and perhaps always have been. Adultism has kept us sheltered from this fact despite the evidence of rising depression and anxiety rates among teens, mass school shootings, bullying, school police violence, drug addiction, suicide and self harm, high drop out rates, and student malaise.
The second problem is that the question is a contradiction. We cannot keep children safe while boxing them into a system of compliance and surveillance - that is not safety. We are trying to maintain something (in person or online) that is inherently violent. Schools were created to indoctrinate the next generation in a capitalist work ethic, which includes a numbing apathy, and to spread the ideology of american exceptionalism and white supremacy.
"We cannot keep children safe while boxing them
into a system of compliance and surveillance."
Today, young people have an unprecedented level of control in when and how they will engage with the schooling system and they are taking full advantage. They can mute their teachers, turn off their cameras and ignore their screens, manipulate the virtual system to their advantage, and even choose not to log on at all. The primary problem with online schooling, then, is that schools simply don’t know how to force students to do things without their physical presence. For those of us truly invested in education justice, this is a great problem to have.
This crisis offers within itself a seed of opportunity - a chance to subvert everything about school we’ve always quietly resisted. We do not need schools in order to learn but schools need us. They need us in our seats, following bell schedules, and filling out test bubbles. They do not know how to operate any other way.
Underfunded as they are, schools have an unimaginable wealth of resources. They represent the largest network ever created of adults invested in nurturing young minds. They could choose to pivot their massive infrastructure to join us in supporting student mental health, healing, curiosity, and self-development. But they won’t. They are required to emphasize
standardized test results, state mandated curriculum, and something called “achievement.” That is why they refuse to look beyond the binary of either returning to classrooms immediately or implementing online coursework modeled off of in-person school.
I urge teachers, parents, and especially students to consider the magic of what is possible if we refuse to do what is expected of us. A general strike to put curriculum power directly in the hands of young people and their educators could prove revolutionary - intergenerational, systemic, and with wide ranging implications for the economy and society as we know it. The solutions should look different for every student, based on their learning goals, trauma histories, personal challenges, and outside network of support. We can do that for them, but we cannot do anything without them.
"Consider the magic of what is possible if we
refuse to do what is expected of us."
No longer can we force young people to comply and submit, no longer should we try. It’s time for an educational vision that centers curiosity, consent, and community. We can create that system, now is the time.