Jun 12, 2020 2020-06-12
By Dr. Kim Wallace
Over the last several months, educators have been scrambling to figure out how to accommodate social distancing, deliver e-learning, stagger bell schedules, ensure health and hygiene, retrofit learning spaces, and pave the multilayered path for everyone to safely return to school this fall. The inability to proactively plan is due to the novel virus commanding center stage in a once-in-a-century global event that history provides few clues to handle. No one really knows whether COVID-19 may soon subside, can ever be remedied, or will surge again in the coming months.
But there are some things we do know. Have known for hundreds of years. And, likewise, have not done nearly enough to try to cure in our America: Racism. Discrimination. Dehumanization. Poverty. Servitude. Brutality.
COVID-19 has shined a light on both our humanity and our lack thereof. If we fed the hungry, curbed biased practices and policies, provided adequate health care, offered meaningful employment, embraced diversity, operated from a place of compassion, and truly leveled the playing field in all arenas ... might the air of anger and despair be tempered? The roots of racial oppression are so, so deep and not easily erased; the smudges and smears have indelibly marred our collective fabric from sea to shining sea.
So when, exactly, are we going to decide as a society to be more interested in helping people survive, live, and thrive than idly watching them struggle, suffer, and die?
Many of our institutions teeter on the precipice of change. Public education has not faced such a seismic shift since young Ruby Bridges stepped into a formerly “whites-only” elementary school flanked by armed national guards in 1957. During that time, learning to read, write, and calculate were the order of the day, and Ruby and the Little Rock Nine fought for their opportunity to receive an equal education and end racial segregation in schools. It was about civil rights then. It still is now.
When children finally reintegrate our schools, we, as educators, will be responsible for catching them up from the academic time lost during COVID-spring of 2020. But just as important, if not more so, we will be charged with healing gaping wounds, ministering fragile scabs, and pasting salve on budding scars from what’s presently unfolding in our country. Senseless murders. Protests and riots. Authoritarian rule. Political posturing. Division and disconnection. A sheltered-in-place society that’s gone from simmering at a low boil to roiling as we mourn the dead and fear the unknown of “what could be next?”
When our school buildings reopen, we will do our best to reset to the comforts of routine, relationships, and learning. But it’s foolish to think that we won’t need many more tools in our toolkit to tend to the physical, psychological, personal, and economic damages families, children, and staff members have confronted. Trauma care. Triage. Therapy. Students and employees will need support resocializing and processing the posttraumatic stresses they’ve experienced and may continue to grapple well into the school year.
If we haven’t already, those of us who went into education primarily to teach math, science, or literature need to widen our scope. We are not just an institution for learning, but a provider of myriad social services. Thus, the first order of business must be to humanize. Then to harmonize. Listen with compassion. Validate feelings (especially the ones that we don’t understand or disturb us). Show we care. Take peoples’ emotional temperatures along with their physical ones.
Not only has COVID-19 confronted us with devastating outcomes physically. It has succeeded even better at exposing the chronic disease of racism that continues to eat away at humanity’s potential, promise, and future. While it’s easier to talk about the viral infection that strangles the breath in our lungs from the inside out, all of us should be compelled to give voice to the ailment that suffocates people of color from the outside in, every single day living in the United States. These are not easy times. But they are our times. And we each have to decide what part we will play so that history is on our side when future generations look back. I contend that education is the only way through and out.
Dr. Kim Wallace started her career in public education twenty-six years ago as a high school teacher before going into site and district administration. Though her most recent role has been the superintendent of a large San Francisco Bay Area district, Dr. Wallace is always a teacher (and learner) at heart as evidenced in her writing, consulting, and presentations on educational leadership, policy, and protocol.