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Thursday, August 13, 2020

RI coalition for equal opportunity education sets out its ideas for safe re-opening

Community Statement on Equitably Reopening RI Schools
By Parents Leading for Educational Equity (PLEE), Alliance of RI Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE), Center for Youth & Community Leadership in Education (CYCLE), Equity Institute, Latino Policy Institute, Rhode Island Center for Justice and Youth In Action 

How other countries reopened schools during the pandemic – and what the US  can learn from themOn July 1, 8, and 15, we hosted a series of community-driven panel discussions about reopening schools in Rhode Island. 

The candid conversations uncovered many questions, ideas, and concerns that youth, parents, and educators have when it comes to the upcoming school year. While the current public conversation about reopening schools seems to drift into polarized viewpoints, we want to lift up what we have heard and felt from the youth, parents, educators, and other community members in our work. 

There are no easy answers to the questions we all have about how and whether we can reopen schools safely and equitably. However, we hope that what we have pulled together here represents a thoughtful balance of considerations that will put us in positions to develop the best possible response for reopening schools this year. 

As the leaders in our state are working hard to develop school reopening plans, we strongly believe that one approach to reopening schools will not serve ALL students equitably. Parents and district staff should not be judged or shamed for the choices they make for themselves and their families. 

It doesn’t matter what the choice is, in the end, every family situation is different and all of us are faced with impossible options, whether you are a parent, caregiver, teacher, or other district staff.

Given the lack of clarity about the choices in front of us, the uncertainty surrounding our public health needs and context, and the need for educators to adequately prepare for presently undefined modes of learning,we appreciate the delay to the start of this school year to ensure that the health and safety of students, educators, and staff is the top priority. 

We believe that in order to keep students and school staff safe, it is not possible at this time for schools to implement any full in-person reopening model. 

We cannot talk about an equitable reopening of schools without addressing the challenges that distance learning presents for differently abled learners, multilingual students, and working parents. 

Furthermore, due to systemic racism, it is no mistake that the communities most affected by coronavirus in RI are working class communities of color. No matter how we respond, working class communities of color are most vulnerable to BOTH coronavirus AND inequitable learning environments. These are realities in our communities and they cannot be ignored. 

An equitable reopening of schools will include BOTH in-person learning for special needs populations and children whose families require in-person schooling for childcare and other services AND robust distance learning options and supports for families who want to be engaged in the school community but are not confident in the health and safety conditions of the schools to send their children for in-person schooling. 

ALL options must be expressly anti-racist and oriented first toward the health and humanity of young people, their families, educators, and our communities

Public Health & Safety Measures for In-Person Learning

In-person learning must strictly adhere to public health and safety guidelines that protect students, teachers, administrators, and all school staff as much as possible from exposure to coronavirus. At the very least, this includes:

  • Efficient COVID-19 screening, testing, and contact-tracing infrastructures;
  • Small stable group class sizes (maximum of 15 people to adhere to current social gatherings limitations);
  • Mask-wearing requirements and provisions; 
  • Adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for front line educators and staff, including N95 respirator masks; 
  • Updated air ventilation and filtration systems and the increase of airflow throughout all indoor learning spaces; 
  • Physical distancing of six feet or more between individuals;
  • Outdoor learning environments and breaks whenever possible;
  • Thorough and consistent cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces and materials;
  • Clean, accessible, and fully stocked bathrooms and washing stations for students and staff with clean water and soap;
  • Strict attention to alternative transportation schedules to support physical distancing and stable groupings; and
  • Staggered start times, recess, lunch breaks, and other innovative schedules to maintain the smallest gatherings possible.
Equity Measures for Distance Learning

The conversation around distance learning is very different if you speak English, learn without much support or modification of mainstream curriculum, already own and know how to navigate computer technology, can afford high-speed internet access, and can work from or stay at home during the day. 

These factors represent inequitable and unearned advantages for families with privilege and means. Distance learning plans must work to eliminate these advantages by providing: 

  • Multilingual support and communication that is consistent, clear and shared by multiple channels of communication; 
  • Special education accommodations and modifications as mandated by IEPs and 504 plans;
  • Culturally-responsive and engaging curriculum and pedagogy;
  • 1-1 personal Chromebook devices;
  • Free high-speed internet with WiFi routers and adapters; and
  • In-home and/or community-based educational support services wherever necessary. 
More broadly, our state, country, and society must provide universal health care, paid leave from work to support dependents, extended and supplemental unemployment benefits, protection against eviction and foreclosure, food security, and access to high-quality child care. Without measures like these, distance learning will fail our most vulnerable families and communities.

Anti-Racism Measures for ALL Learning Conditions

We must acknowledge that our systems inadequately served our most vulnerable populations prior to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, with increased and exacerbated trauma as a result of the pandemic, and in the context of popular uprisings against police murders of Black people and systemic racism, school systems must be even more intentionally anti-racist and attentive to the social and emotional needs of students and families. Black Lives Matter at school, whether in-person or remote. 

The xenophobia, racism, and fear being stoked by many in the context of coronavirus have no place in our learning environments and must be actively fought against. In all learning modes, districts and schools must increase investments in culturally responsive, anti-racist, and social and emotional learning and supports:

  • Law enforcement, including School Resource Officers (SROs), must be removed from schools;
  • Restorative and transformative justice models must be implemented to replace punitive and exclusionary discipline practices that continue to disproportionately target and harm Black and Brown youth;
  • Funds that have supported the criminalization of Black and Brown youth in the form of police in schools need to be redirected to social and emotional supports to increase the number and services of counselors and social workers who are representative of and responsive to the cultural diversity of our communities and student body; and
  • Educators in all contexts must be continuously trained in anti-racist pedagogy, provided culturally responsive curriculum, and supported to attend to students’ social and emotional needs and growth.
We face unique challenges as a society in these times. We must rise to these challenges by reimagining our schools, social services, and systems overall. As we support young people to learn, we must also cultivate a world in which they will grow to lead. 

We owe them nothing less than the thoughtful intention we hope to have conveyed here. We call upon our elected leaders and public officials to work together with communities to do what is right and necessary.