How We Can Center Equity and Racial Justice When Schools Reopen



About two weeks ago, the CDC released guidance for reopening our nation’s schools. That guidance isn’t sensitive to racial justice and is, therefore, not enough to advance equity.

As an educator, I’m convinced that, as the world grapples with plagues of white supremacy and anti-Blackness, should we fail to center equity, school reopenings will be disastrous, particularly for Black students. We must reopen schools based on love-driven decisions that acknowledge the presence of white supremacy and anti-Blackness and use both research evidence and local input to guide the development of reopening plans that are both humanizing and health conscious.

COVID-19 has placed into sharp relief how white supremacy and anti-Blackness functions as social ecology where vulnerable people in our country suffer more, where inequity is a condition of our society that plays out at the intersections of race, gender, language, housing, nutrition, age, ability, income level, and social class.

Even though this moment is exposing how our society is currently ill-designed to favor its most vulnerable citizens, various narratives of disparity have long shaped our understanding of education. Even before COVID-19 and the civil unrest following the lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black and Brown students were more likely to suffer the worst outcomes of schooling and less likely to experience the best compared to their more privileged white peers.

It is true that these disparities increase over time and intensify the intersections of difference. However, none of this novel; none of it is new.

To get to different results when schools reopen, we must  embrace new aims, embrace hard truths that we have so long too comfortably evaded. However, these aims must never be shaped by what this moment has taken from us but by what it has given us, such as the chance to slow down, speak truth, and confront the challenges that face us.

During this crucial intermission, there are at least three things we can do now to promote racial justice and center equity as we prepare to go back to school:

First, we can listen.

There are many ways to listen, but, as my colleague Niobe Way suggests, we must listen thickly. Thick listening involves creating space for others to speak while we hear them. We must also listen to the bodies of the people our schools do not serve well, as such bodies express needs and wants not always easily put into words.

Next, we can begin the process of healing.

The first part of this process is acknowledging that something has happened—has, indeed, long been happening—to us, not just to our physical bodies but also to the souls of our schools.

How can we turn the lens of anti-racist, trauma-informed care outward so that we might heal the injured systems that currently wound our children? Indeed, there is another global pandemic that vulnerable children face—the lingering plague of biases that course through the veins of our schools. Healing our schools from this disease will take time. But before we get back to them, we must acknowledge that they are sick and are in need of healing too.

Third, we can partner.

In doing so, we must resist the impulse to make decisions alone and instead enlist the support of those closest to the problem because they are also closest to the solution. If we want to get closer to solutions, then we must get closer to those who have them.

This moment has taught us many important lessons. Perhaps chief among them is that we are in this struggle together. The decisions that I make impact more than just me, and the decisions that you make impact more than just you.

If we are to build brighter and bolder schools on the other side of the physical, social, and economic pandemics, we will have to grab hands, put all of our answers on one table, and do as James Baldwin has suggested: “Search deeply within answers for the questions they conceal.” Once we arrive at the right questions, we will be more likely to arrive at the right answers.

If we do these three things, we will be more likely to envision systems or sets of environments that are welcoming and affirming, where the least-desired or redundant components from school activities are omitted. But doing these three things will mean refusing the idea that schools must be places of punishment and instead sites of joy.

This joy-based reimagining of schools will involve divesting in policing as we know it, removing police and metal detectors from our schools, more prosocial human-to-human interaction, collaborative learning, less or no homework, very few assessments that are continuous in nature, and group assessments that feel less burdensome. Most importantly, it will require us to create new spaces that center students and let go of anything that continues to marginalize, devalue, exclude, and harm them.


David E. Kirkland is a professor of urban education at New York University. He also serves as the executive director of The Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. He can be reached at:

2 thoughts on “How We Can Center Equity and Racial Justice When Schools Reopen

  1. Pingback: When elephants fight, it is the [New Yorkers] that suffer, [amended African Proverb] | Ed In The Apple

  2. Thank you for sharing this piece

    It is imperative as educators to create spaces rooted in joy, happiness, and healing for our young people who are consistently reminded by the world they live in that their humanity is limited or under negotiation based off of identify markers out of their control (race, gender, ability status…)

    We have to “listen thickly” (first time I heard this language, I really love it) and center their voices/experiences. We must acknowledge directly that our systems sit on a foundation of white supremacy before we stand up to unravel its wicked thread

    This time of COVID-19 is not a time to withdraw and be static. The revolution is growing outside. We must imagine a better world for our people and actively work towards it in any way that we can. Any system that does not acknowledge racial inequity, is failing us @CDC !!



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