By Dr. Ann M. Ishimaru, author, Just Schools

As I write this, over 50 million children are now at home with their families due to school closures. In the wake of COVID-19, it is no longer possible to overlook the role of families in the education and wellbeing of young people. In a profound and sudden way, families have come to the center of conversations about education.

At the same time, as so many have noted, the pandemic has not only revealed but deepened racial injustices in our society. Black, Native, and Latinx communities have been hit disproportionately hard by coronavirus; many working class immigrants have been forced to remain in frontline labor or have lost their jobs; those without documentation live with limited access to healthcare, few governmental supports, and constant fear; incidents of anti-Asian racism have increased dramatically.

These racial inequities profoundly shape how children, youth, and families experience the pandemic. While some privileged families demand online instruction and grades for their children to maintain their academic competitiveness, others experience trauma upon trauma as they care for elders or siblings, respond to rapid shifts, and juggle work, anxiety, and multiple forms of insecurity. Though schools have mobilized to try to address basic needs, the links between educational inequities and food insecurity, housing and job instability, poverty, healthcare and racism are more evident than ever.

But COVID-19 isn’t just revealing inequities; many of our responses are exacerbating them.

Schools’ responses are often premised on assumptions about families, learning, and justice—an intersection I address in my book, Just Schools: Building Equitable Collaborations with Families and Communities. Two particularly dangerous assumptions about families are driving current decisions that threaten to worsen racial inequities.

Dangerous Assumption #1: We should recreate school at home

Most schools and educational leaders are operating from the presumption that we should aim to transfer business-as-usual schooling into homes as much as possible. Although the concern about educational inequities has focused on access to laptops and internet access, there are much deeper inequities at play in the move to recreate school at home. When we assume that the learning that matters only happens at school, we are not only ignoring a robust body of research about life-long learning, we also continue to approach families, especially those from Indigenous or communities of color, as inherently lacking or deficient.

The assumption that families should recreate school at home is also a colonizing notion with disturbing historical roots, particularly for families of color. As scholars have described, taking children from their families for the purpose of forced assimilation has a long history, seen most devastatingly in the boarding schools endured by Indigenous communities. This use of schooling as a mechanism of colonization and assimilation seems to echo in efforts to impose school-based learning into homes and potential penalties for students who don’t participate.

As many have noted before, the homes of youth and families of color are often viewed by school personnel as deficient. While financial resource constraints are real, educators often conflate these challenges with presumptions of cultural and other deficiencies. But we must learn to recognize the knowledge, wisdom, cultural practices, and resiliencies that have gotten communities of color through all kinds of crises over time. Children learn these practices through everyday activities like cooking and household chores, sharing stories, songs, and cultural or religious traditions, through neighborhood walks and errands, and by helping our loved ones and extended communities in times of hardship. In these contexts, families also include siblings, cousins, grandparents, and other caregivers.

As schools consider continued remote learning, we must recognize the potential damage that deficiency assumptions about families can do. Educators can be oblivious to the ways that we may be, in essence, asking families to embrace school-based learning as the sole valued form of knowledge at home, at the expense of their own language, cultural practices, and ways of knowing, being, and doing. Such uncritical expectations imply that children learn nothing when they are with their families and, in fact, they are being uniformly harmed by time at home. Add punitive grading regimes to a situation in which some young people cannot realistically engage in schooling activities, and these well-intended efforts to continue learning can exacerbate existing inequities.

In my book, I share 4 guiding principles for fostering more equitable collaborations, the first of which is to start with families and communities—and their priorities, interests, needs, and expertise. Rather than framing this time solely as “learning loss,” how might we begin to recognize the learning that’s happening in homes? Rather than positioning families as harmful to learning, how could we build from what’s already underway to cultivate more robust, culturally-grounded, family-centered learning? How might we, as educators, learn from families in ways that could help us begin to reimagine schooling differently—to foster more just schools? As Dr. Joel Westheimer suggests, we might start by exploring the learning that young people are gaining right now within the context of their families.

Dangerous Assumption #2: Others know what’s best for kids

In the pre-COVID-19 era, many key decisions about schools—how to hold them accountable, which to close, what children should learn and how – positioned educators and policymakers as the sole experts on what’s best for young people. This assumption has served to reinforce inequity and disregard or erase the lived realities, leadership and voice of the young people, families and communities who have the most at stake in unjust schools. Even as nearly every aspect of our lives seems to have been upended by the pandemic, one thing hasn’t changed: crucial educational decisions continue to proceed without the expertise and voice of youth, families, and communities of color.

Educational leaders are making decisions right now that they consider to be in the best interest of young people and families. But how do we know what youth and families need and want—and how will we ensure we are not basing our decisions on assumptions and policies that maintain inequity? Some have suggested that this is not the time to be consulting with people—crisis requires quick, resolute leadership that will account for the “voiceless” in our systems. But as Arundati Roy (2004) has pointed out:

“We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”

Youth, parents, families, and communities may be struggling to manage the multiple impacts of the pandemic, but they are not voiceless—rather, our systems routinely ignore or disregard their insights and expertise. The second principle of equitable collaboration in my book is to transform power. That means listening to the “deliberately silenced or preferably unheard” youth and families in our systems, not assuming privileged parents speak for all families or that only professional educators know what’s best for them.

Charting a New Path with Families & Communities

This crisis has revealed the startling absence of systems for collaborating with families and communities to foster more just schools. For instance, we have few systems to ensure two-way communication with families facing a huge array of different challenges; for partnering with community organizations to ensure a social safety net for those already vulnerable; and for building justice into our decisions and processes by integrating the leadership of youth, families and communities. I’ve lost count of how many times I have recently heard educational leaders exclaim, “if only we’d had these things in place before COVID-19, it would be so much easier right now!”

Beyond the immediate crisis response, most of the educational systems in our country are scrambling to return to normal. But as many have argued, “normal” was part of the problem to begin with.

One way we can refuse a return to the old “normal” is to notice and challenge the dangerous assumptions about schools and families of color that are even now fueling inequities in our COVID-19 responses. We can, instead, build practices and systems for collaborating with families and fostering wellbeing and justice in education as we step through the “portal” of this pandemic.

Featured image by Lourdes ÑiqueGrentz on Pixabay