Just a few months ago, educators were sharing tips among one another for how to appropriately and responsibly discuss the tragedy that had swept our nation off its feet — the passing of Kobe and Giana Bryant. At that time, it seemed as though the collective grief of our students, accompanied by diverse opinions regarding the late Kobe Bryant’s personal history, presented the opportunity for as challenging as conversations could possibly become for classroom teachers and school and administrators. If only we knew what else 2020 had in store for us.
Since mid-March, students across the country and right here in Indianapolis have become witness to, and victim of, a number of traumatic events. Police brutality, economic downturn, gun violence and a global pandemic have been the backdrop of our kids’ spring and summer. During a time when children should be living carefree, unbridled joy has been hard to come by. Everywhere they turn, there are visual cues, such as masks and #BlackLivesMatter signs, reminding them that we are not OK. Children are hearing the conversations among adults about loss of job, fear of illness or frustration with the system. They are extraordinarily aware of what is going on in the world right now. As we prepare to welcome our students back into buildings and virtual classrooms in the coming weeks, schools must consider how these topics will be discussed and what role they will play in advancing our society beyond this moment.
Imagine being 9 years old, leaving school on a Thursday just like any other day, and not returning to that building again for months, if at all. Students were blindsided with school closures. They left items in their desks and lockers with the expectation that they would return to them the following day, and they didn’t get the opportunity to reunite with their beloved pencil pouches, crayon boxes or instruments for months. First and second graders told their classmates and teachers “see you tomorrow,” only to never see those people again. In the blink of an eye, school bus rides, recess and specials classes became a recent memory for students, and Zoom calls and work packets became their new reality. We have to consider the traumatic impact this sudden shift had on our students.
In addition to shifting how and where students learn, COVID-19 changed the way children interact with their outside world in general. In the early months of the pandemic, I watched my friends celebrate their kids’ birthdays via Facebook live and video conferencing platforms. “Because of coronavirus” became children’s default justification for why they can no longer do anything fun, including spending time with extended family. Spring break trips were canceled, and summer camps, if they occurred at all, were altered beyond recognition. While we adults lament the loss of vacations, sporting events and employment opportunities, it is important that we remember that young people have experienced and continue to experience loss as well.
And despite the fact that they, too, are suffering due to the international health crisis, young people have been on the front lines of #BlackLivesMatter protests in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, Dreasjon Reed and George Floyd. They have spoken out against white supremacy at their schools and institutions of learning, creating #BlackAt… Instagram pages, sharing personal experiences with racism, prejudice and discrimination. Artists are even releasing music directly addressing topics like police brutality and racism; there is no avoiding the conversation of systemic racism and white supremacy in this moment. This means that schools and school districts, which have for generations been perpetuators of these systems, will have no choice but to take a hard look at the ways in which they are contributing to individual and collective suffering.
In this series, I will be detailing what it is that I believe to be the role of schools and educators as it pertains to the current crises. As educators, we cannot continue with business as usual. I will not pretend to have all the answers, and I understand that the approach I take will not be comfortable or even possible for other schools and districts. Let’s engage in this conversation together and figure out what is possible, what it is that we can do. Join me next week as we explore how schools should address the realities of COVID-19 without further traumatizing our students.
Find out more about Thrival Indy Academy by following the school in Instagram, Twitter and Facebook (@ThrivalIndy). Visit our YouTube channel to learn more about our approach to education. Join our livestreamed information sessions via Facebook and YouTube at 12:30 p.m. every Friday in July.
India Hui is the founding school leader and executive director of Thrival Indy Academy, an IPS Innovation High School.