by Maurice J. Elias and Larry Leverett
It is beyond dispute that unconscious bias and overt racism remain embedded in the U.S. education system. It is equally clear that healing must begin from within. Recent statements by millions of Americans, in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement and its message, demonstrate a nationwide shift in hearts and minds and a readiness to challenge these historical disparities.
As we contemplate how to reopen our schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we face an urgent and undeniable opportunity to rid our school systems of the racist barriers that prevent all students from reaching their potential. We cannot wait for the “right” moment until things “settle down” or until certain folks are “ready.” While fighting a physical virus and understanding that safety for students and staff will be the paramount issue this fall, we must take this opportunity to root out a more insidious spiritual virus, one that has infected our values and institutions for centuries.To do this, we must take the following bold steps.
These steps represent a process and not a checkbox. They represent a dramatic change in how we educate all of our students.
First, schools must commit to supporting the social and emotional wellness of students, teachers and families, both as part of the pandemic recovery and as the basis for establishing equity and social justice in our education systems.
They should adopt the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for the United States’ guidance through which schools can help children and adults understand and manage stress. And they must commit to building an atmosphere of welcome, caring and love for all students.
Though teachers cannot remove all effects of racism any more than they can cure the pandemic, and though they cannot change the disproportional damage that COVID-19 inflicts on communities of color, they can start the process of recovery with a commitment to ensuring equity in students’ opportunities to thrive.
Next, schools should examine their practices and outcomes to seek out areas of conscious or unconscious bias or other factors that interfere with the success of students of color, or other historically marginalized groups of students. Administrators, teachers and staff must develop clear guidelines for individual and collective improvement. [This] means engaging the school community in ongoing conversations, self-reflections and professional development to build a shared commitment to ensuring an equity of opportunities and supports for all students.
This self-reflection should be ongoing and should include examinations of all aspects of learning to ensure the best is being done for all subgroups of students, by all subgroups of staff. It should include not just teachers but all adults working with and in schools and must be reflected in performance standards and accountability.
Teachers, staff and administrators who feel this is too much of a burden can be shown the exit door from the education system. Our children have waited too long for adults to demonstrate the will to fully educate each child without regard to race, zip code and socioeconomic status. They must wait no longer.
Finally, schools must engage with their communities to address inequities that exist beyond the school walls. They must build community-wide resources to help students resolve the traumatic impacts of the dual pandemics of racism and COVID-19. They should work with communities to organize mental health resources that are accessible equally to all students, and ensure an appropriate number of school counselors, psychologists and social workers are available at each school.
Such services are currently triggered by a diagnosable difficulty such as anxiety, suicidality, learning or communication problems but by the time these issues come to light, the affected student has suffered the loss of learning time and damaged relationships. Many students, who are affected daily by race-related trauma, need access to mental health resources both inside and outside the school before their problems worsen.
As schools reopen this fall, we must take advantage of the opportunity to set a new path for current and future generations of educators, students, parents, politicians and citizens. It will be our defining legacy.
Maurice J. Elias is a professor of psychology at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and directs the Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab.
Larry Leverett is a retired teacher, former New Jersey assistant commissioner of education and former superintendent of the Plainfield Public Schools.
Originally published by NJ.com on September 2, 2020