The committee completed this report against the backdrop of a nation responding to the multiple deaths of Black people from police violence. In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals of all races took to the streets in protest, demanding accountability for a broken system. Although this committee was not tasked with commenting on issues around racial justice, it is impossible to make recommendations related to reopening schools without acknowledging the larger circumstances in which many Black and Indigenous people and communities of color develop distrust of state systems.
It is within this context that the committee grappled with what to recommend to education stakeholders, and we struggled to uncover a number of unarticulated assumptions about what is best for children. In the process, we took on a series of challenging questions: What is meant when one discusses the physical and emotional safety of K–12 students? What is the role and value of schools in communities? If the United States moves to reopen schools in Fall 2020, who will truly bear the risks of this pandemic, and what does that mean for different kinds of communities across the country?
The reality, of course, is that the answers to these questions largely depend on the values and priorities of the asker. As Dr. Megan Bang of Northwestern University said in her presentation to the committee, the conclusions one draws about the evidence before them are never neutral. The logic used in deciding when and how to reopen schools reflects values and assumptions, both of which are historically situated and subject to visible and invisible power dynamics. Moreover, those values and assumptions are legible to the communities of people who go to, work at, and send their
children to schools. When policy makers leave those values and assumptions uninterrogated in the face of systemic racism, they tend to crystallize into policy that reproduces pernicious deficit ideologies about communities of color. In essence, race and class matter in every aspect of these decisions, regardless of whether decision makers acknowledge them.
As the nation struggles to find a road to recovery in the face of the twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and the epidemic of systemic racism, there are no easy answers, no quick and affordable policy decisions that will enable children to reenter schools safely while simultaneously addressing the profound systemic inequities this moment in time has laid bare. Addressing these challenges will require the coordinated and concerted efforts of all sectors in the United States. It will require commitments to equitable school financing, to engaging communities in the complicated and emotional decision-making related to reopening schools, and to centering equity in the discussions that surround those decisions.
Amid all these discourses, though, the committee sees an opportunity to use this moment as way forward in U.S. schooling. Communities across the country have a chance to consider explicitly their expectations for what roles schools should serve and to reopen schools in accordance with those priorities. Beyond the necessary investments from federal and state governments, school districts can be positioned to engage deliberately with students, families, staff, and other community interests, taking seriously their expressed needs, hopes, anxieties, and goals. With careful consideration and commitments, this can be a moment to do more than simply reopen the doors to U.S. schools; it can also be a moment to reimagine their possibilities.