Re-Opening Schools: Beyond Buildings

“The children have to return to school.”

Since March 2020, this has been the rallying cry across the nation as schools moved from the physical building into the online space after the coronavirus swept across our country. With only days notice, teachers were thrust into a new and unfamiliar form of teaching. Frustrations grew as kids and parents learned how to log into Zoom, navigate Google Classroom, and find ways to post classwork online.

As the virus raged on outside, being inside was a tough adjustment. We weren’t ready. There was so much loss happening around us. People were losing their lives. People were losing their jobs. Did we need to lose our schools as well?

The call to open schools seemed understandable. Children missed their friends. Our youngest learners needed constant support and assistance to participate in online school, while many older students weren’t logging on at all. Family caretakers were struggling to adjust to their new roles as teaching assistants. Everyone was exhausted.

Nine months later, we have learned some things. Teacher’s have gotten a little savvier at teaching remotely. We also know that not all kids are struggling. But our biggest realization is that remote schooling will remain a thing for much longer than we originally hoped and has become the topic of much debate. There are a number of parents and school districts which insist that for learning to occur, school buildings have to reopen — saying that children simply aren’t learning online and that they need to be in school buildings with teachers to learn.

But is this the reality? The reality is some students are finding liberation in the flexibility of online schools and a lot of that liberation comes from not being in the school building. This is particularly true of our students of color as mentioned in the New York Times.

“But one recent analysis indicates that some Black families value keeping their children at home for an entirely different reason: to protect them from racial hostility and bias. Granted, not all Black children are thriving at home. They’re overrepresented among the kids who don’t have reliable Wi-Fi or adequate equipment at home. And supervising online learning is not an option for parents who are essential workers — a group that disproportionately includes Black people. Yet for some of those for whom virtual school is viable, the current disruption has opened up a new world: education without daily anxiety about racism.”

America is a country with a long history of keeping people out of buildings. “White only” signs hung outside of movie theaters, restaurants and post offices. My 67-year-old father was born at home in Florida because my Black grandmother was not allowed to give birth in the hospital. These blocked entryways didn’t stop the people who sought to enter — their activities just took place elsewhere.

In the case of schools, we see several examples of this happening historically across the country. Enslaved Africans risked learning to read and write in secret knowing that being caught meant possible death. In the early 1900s, Gholdy Muhammad mentions in her book, “Cultivating Genius,” Black literacy societies in Philadelphia would raise money to buy and read books in secret, practicing reading out loud in church basements and abandoned buildings. Out in California, the Black Panther Party formed “liberation schools” in storefronts, churches, and homes until they were able to open their own Intercommunal Youth Institute (later renamed the Oakland Community School) in January 1971. In the American South, hundreds of volunteers gathered youth in Mississippi to create the Freedom Summer Project in the 1960s. In addition to increasing voter registration, the project created 41 Freedom Schools. Black students had a chance to explore their own histories in addition to traditional core subjects, which provided them with the intellectual and practical tools to carry on the mission long after the summer volunteers were gone.

A key question was raised after the Freedom Schools project. “In 1964, a small yet vocal number of African American students opted to boycott the public schools altogether. They questioned the logic of entering white classrooms that had reacted violently to desegregation orders. For students who boycotted their public schools, Freedom Schools served as a replacement for conventional classrooms. The court case that followed was used as precedent in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969), which protected students’ right to free speech.” (Atlantic )

History shows us example after example of schools not being a place where Black kids ever felt freedom, welcomed, or represented. Sadly not much has changed. Today, Black and Latino students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled and more likely to receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. We see Black students expelled over wearing their natural hair. Queer students suspended for wearing nail polish. The educational institution was failing these before the pandemic. Why should they have trust to return to these institutions now? How can we “re-open” spaces that were never fully open to begin with?

Instead, educational leaders should focus on rebuilding new spaces. As Dr. Sonja Cherry — Paul says: “We become the architects, and we build for liberation. We build by listening to those who have been silenced, traditionally marginalized, and denied the spaces in schools to make sense of, and build upon lived experiences”

School does not happen in a singular location. School can take place anywhere. To pass up this opportunity we’ve been given to cultivate something new to support historically marginalized learners would surely be a loss. How can we leverage this time for students who may not have felt honored in all the beautiful ways their brilliance shows up because it’s not what norms have dictated what brilliance looked like? This is the time to reshape the conventional classroom setting. Remote education does not work for all, but how are we supporting learners who have found freedom in the online space? How are we using our collective strength as learning communities to support all children in their preferred learning environments? It’s time to decenter the school building as the focal point and to center the children inside of it instead.

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