NEA VP Becky Pringle and NAACP President Derrick Johnson

Ensuring racial justice in reopening our schools by Kayla McCullough

Schools reopening 2020


On Thursday, June 18, from 5-6 p.m. EDT, the NEA (National Education Association) hosted an important discussion about the future of our schools and our duty to reopen school buildings with racial justice at the forefront of its strategy. With the wake of the pandemic and ongoing murders that have shaken the status quo and laid bare to a lot of our country’s deep-seated problems from massive economic inequality to ongoing racial disparities to a lack of basic healthcare for people who need it, it’s woken a lot of people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work (and never have). And with more movements for Black Lives Matter than ever continuing to sweep across the country, we can all agree that change is happening. So, where will that leave the school system when classes resume? What changes will be made to ensure safety and equality for our black and brown children? Many schools across the country will in all likelihood reopen in the fall for the 2020-21 school year and states are currently reviewing potential models that maximize both learning – whether in-person or continued remote instruction – and health and safety. The National Education Association (NEA) believes that any reopening model has to not only ensure the health and safety of students and staff but also prioritize long term strategies on student learning and educational equity.

As the struggle to make sense of being black in this country continues, one thing has become clear - racism itself is complex and contentious and most of us are afraid to even approach the subject. It often feels easier and safer to avoid the topic altogether. But silence and inaction reinforce the status quo and avoidance speaks volumes — it communicates to students of color that racism doesn’t matter enough to warrant attention and, by omission, invalidates their experiences, perspectives, identities, and lives.


“To advance real solutions, we need to address real problems. As adults and teachers in this country, we have “teachable moments,” or opportunities to constructively and productively address race. But these opportunities need to be thoughtfully created, seized, planned, and managed.” To assist states and school districts in this effort, NEA this week released “All Hands on Deck: Initial Guidance Regarding Reopening School Buildings.” This program is built around four basic principles – health expertise (because health experts should tell us when it is safe to reopen), educator voice (because educators who know the names of their students and families should be part of the decision making about reopening), access to protection (because all of our student’s educators should have access to personal protective equipment and high-quality disinfectant supplies provided consistently), and leading with equity (because focusing on racial justice on the frontend of making decisions is critical to making sure our black and brown students have what they need) – the document lays out what schools need to do to prepare for reopening, and how they can make their reopening succeed far beyond the first few weeks of the new school year. “We built this tool so those will be prepared to ask the right questions that every educator, district leader, and decision-maker should consider before returning to face to face learning to ensure every one of our students and every one of our educators returns to equitable and safe places for learning.”

So, how can public experts and teachers start to make the classroom a just and safe place for learning? The NEA recommends starting with equity and inclusion. “When you begin making equity and inclusion prominent priorities in your classroom norms, routines, and environment. When you do this, students will feel a greater sense of belonging, safety, and openness. Balance participation and learning opportunities…” is what Derek Johnson, President, and CEO of the NAACP advise. Everyone regardless of race can have unconscious racial biases. To ensure that there are no racial impacts regarding your school’s policies and practices, make sure you help root out biases and barriers. Create a supportive culture and hold an affirming space for all of your students, individually and collectively. Use diverse curriculum materials, differentiated instruction methods, and give students some choices to accommodate different interests and learning styles.

“Race is not simply an individual characteristic or cultural identity. More significantly, it is a social category and a power dynamic—a marker of a racial group’s positional power in society. Racial identities are socially assigned, regardless of how you self-identify. While attention to diversity is important, it is even more critical to address equity (fairness or justice), since racism is fundamentally about power.” There is so much uncertainty about the world right now and it’s ultimately causing stress for students, parents, teachers, and public officials. To ensure that students have the resources, staff, and support needed to combat the trauma they are facing every day, our school systems need to start putting these programs that the NEA has created.

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