A Black parent’s perspective: The dangers of not keeping children first and foremost during COVID-19 recovery

Gwen Samuel

Amid the hype of VIP school visits, parents, mostly those who are Black, brown and/or poor, must realize there is no Superman coming to save them.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” — Nelson Mandela

As a mom and education activist, I reflected upon Women’s History Month in March as a time to honor ourselves and the many diverse women, past and present, who have shattered and continue to shatter that infamous glass ceiling of gender norms. One such honor is the election of Kamala Harris, the 49th vice president of the United States. Harris made history as the first woman, and woman of color, to hold this office.

Adding to the whirlwind of March experiences and emotions, those of us from Connecticut and Pennsylvania had the distinct pleasure of celebrating First Lady Biden’s inaugural visit to our respective states.

Finally, our Congressional lawmakers confirmed the 12th U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, from our great state of Connecticut—the first Latino to serve in that role. 

Lots of firsts. Lots of excitement. 

It is easy to get caught up in the hype, but once the applause subsides and the presidential motorcades drive off to their next events, parents, mostly Black, brown and/or poor, once again realize there is no Superman coming to save them. 

Once again, Black and brown students and those with special educational needs and those from poorly resourced communities understand that despite a deadly pandemic, we face the constant reminder of the dangers of returning to “business as usual,” especially with more than $122 billion from the Biden administration American Rescue Plan about to pour into school districts across this country. 

There has been a lot of focus on dollar amounts and making sure schools receive additional funds to address pandemic-related learning loss and other issues. Sadly, there has been very little conversation about fiscal and personal accountability.

Where are the meaningful recommendations with a laser-focus on student-centered approaches that will ensure that millions of America’s students get the customized educational support they need to get back on track academically and in life, along with the resources that need to stay in place to ensure children stay on track beyond the pandemic?

As parents, especially Black parents, and education activists, we do not get the luxury of crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. We must follow the money and demand that the COVID-19 education rescue and recovery funding efforts center around the academic and life needs of all children, not the ideological and ego needs of adults in public education.

Regardless of ZIP code or income level, we must continue to learn and understand how the Biden administration plans to embrace various schooling opportunities to help children get back on track academically following a year of mass school closures across this country due to the unpredictable and unprecedented pandemic.

Reflecting on this, I want to raise two major red flags: the dangers of normalizing failure under this new administration by trying to apply pre-pandemic “one size fits all children” educational solutions; and not centering on children’s academic and life needs in public education during pandemic education rescue and recovery efforts

I define normalizing failure as doing the same “one size fits all children” strategies in public education spaces and expecting different results, especially for marginalized populations. 

Our current and pre-pandemic public education system leaves entirely too many children behind. Why not just do the right thing and center children in public education, pivot accordingly, and embrace best practices that give more children access to customized learning experiences: charter schools, magnets, expanded vocational opportunities like the Christo Rey model, and expansion of education savings accounts? How about ensuring that every traditional public school child has access to massive tutoring support?  

Do you notice a common theme here? All these recommendations have the child as the focal point for the strategy.

It took a pandemic for us to realize just how many students have been left behind by normalized failure; parents were not asking for more because they had become accustomed to less. The virus disrupted the K-12 landscape in ways that allowed families to see behind the curtain—and to ask more questions.

Why isn’t my school offering what my child needs? How are we supposed to get the special needs services we depend on if the school will not open? Why can’t we have a hybrid model going forward? What happens if a bunch of parents got together and formed our own school?

Failing children is still an option, even though it should never be, but it is not the only option, and families now know they do not have to accept it. That is life changing. 

My sentiments regarding the dangers of not centering children in public education were validated as I listened to Kentucky and California high school students on a March 22 panel I participated in from the National Association of State Boards of Education legislative conference that featured Secretary Cardona and Congressman Bobby Scott of the House Education & Labor Committee. 

This very enlightening panel was titled, “Voices from the Field: Perspectives from Teachers, Students, and Families on Education in the Pandemic.” It highlighted a very important “Coping with Covid19” student-to-student survey from the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team of Lexington, Kentucky. 

The goals of our NASBE session were straightforward, and every taxpayer and parent should take note:

·       Demystifying educational systems by fostering an understanding of practice vs. policy gaps, better known now as pandemic practice and policy gulfs, that existed prior to the pandemic that were exacerbated or ameliorated by the new context or specific local/state actions

·       Putting a face to the educational justice fight by sharing and highlighting on the ground, lived experiences of diverse teachers, families, and students amidst this unpredictable and unprecedented pandemic to emphasize how vital diverse voices from the field are to designing and implementing local, state, and federal policy

·       Offering concrete next steps to all local and state board of education members to ensure all students are the center of public education regardless of race, ZIP code or income level. 

As a parent, I feel compelled to highlight current policy recommendations that need immediate course correction before billions of dollars pour into school districts across the country for COVID-19 education recovery efforts that do not actually meet students’ individualized academic needs. We can no longer:

·       Fail to recognize charter school students as public-school children, denying them fair access to educational supports and resources that traditional K-12 public school students routinely receive 

·       Fail to embrace the power of educational scholarships, leaving behind students who want to pursue non-traditional opportunities such as private school, hybrid schooling or micro schooling. More than 20 states have introduced education savings account bills. ESAs are the most popular and flexible form of school choice. We should be running toward them as a policy solution. West Virginia and Kentucky are prime examples of states that have embraced groundbreaking school choice programs in recent weeks.

·       Fail to ensure every child in America has access to effective year-round tutoring and before- and after-school supports; this is critical and can be done in partnership with communities and faith leaders and not in lieu of traditional schooling or help in the classroom.

As I listened recently to First Lady Biden and Secretary Cardona, there was a temptation to think coming out of this pandemic will be easy. We just need to spend more money, and things will eventually get back to the way they used to be.

That’s simply not true.

Making quality education available and accessible to all—especially to Black and brown students—has never been easy work. It’s even harder now. Instead of just focusing on funding and metrics and talking points, we need to take a bigger-picture approach and address the fundamental flaws that have long plagued our traditional public school system and have created generational disparities based on race and income. 

The one-size-fits-all approach we used to take wasn’t working before the pandemic, and it sure as heck won’t work now. Let’s make some major policy changes so families can finally have access to the opportunities they’ve long searched out but often couldn’t reach. 

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