The last week has been tough to endure as a father to an energetic nine-year-old. Like a slew of parents across the country I am not only anxious about what appears to be cloudy and incongruous guidance of The Centers of Disease Control (CDC) but acknowledge the nagging fear that my youngster and children across this nation are experiencing a collective mental health crisis. The magnitude of the strain on our youth’s social-emotional and personal wellness has been highlighted by The United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy in the recent report Protecting Youth Mental Health
As a person that seeks to lean in and grow through a compassionate lens it is important to undo this covid complicity, posturing as courage, that emboldens both elected and appointed leaders to spout tough talk. Current rhetoric ranges “from schools are the safest place for our kids” to “we can no longer subject kids to learning loss.” The conversation is carried by an undercurrent of political division, expediency and economic purity opposed to healthy and educationally sound safe solutions for teachers and families. Real inequities that black and brown families may face in terms of childcare, tech access and employment, are being used to justify the political decisions of those who have never had a vested interest in improving their circumstances long term. The voices missing from news clippings and soundbites are the families most affected, and teachers forced to juggle their commitment to their students, their own families and their health daily.
I write this with a clear understanding that my own privilege lends me having more ownership of my time than others, and a well of resources and access afforded to me. And, though I respect the multi-layered gravity of the decisions our civic leadership are grappling with, I can mitigate how greatly they impact and inform my family in ways others may not. The grandstanding of tough talking politicians who have invested overtime into getting their economy back in their cities, folds against a truly comprehensive examination of the complexities affecting the collective. Make no mistake, I’m not naive to the implications of having a black child in a system that places wealth over his black body and thus, I along with his mama, must remind those in power that we are fully aware of the architecture of white supremacy and the poorly veiled, controlled chaos of public education.
To hear New York City Mayor Eric Adams, implore the largest public teaching corps to get back in the saddle, while ignoring the litany of risks and responsibilities that come with working with young people in these unprecedented times, drives me to question why the approach is to lead with histrionics instead of humanity. Rather than using this moment to examine how the fragility of Covid exacerbated the pervasive barriers that schools have been perpetually struggling against, many governing officials will determine their positions based on political expediency while continuing to send their own children to private schools citing safety concerns.
As a former NYC DOE staffer, I vividly remember the superficial need to have all the answers. Public schools, especially those in depressed urban centers at their base level, are district sanctioned incubators of hyper compliance that have shunned community ownership and creativity. Like NYC, Chicago has become yet another epicenter for bully tactics in the attempt to bulldoze the Teacher’s Union with authoritative versus inclusive decision making. When in history has this country ever truly cared about the education of Black children to the point that policy has reflected making their success the priority? Adams and Lightfoot notably have spoken to educators like Lauren Ingram implored NBA great, LeBron James, to shut up and dribble. The danger in having black faces condemn other black bodies through the guise of the HNIC syndrome is that it allows for others to do the same with impunity. To blame educators’ self-advocacy for current education dilemmas shifts the blame away from politics that has eroded education for years, and rarely inspires tough talking pols to jump in and help without being divisive.
Authoritarian leaders in the pandemic who don’t have a plan for schools that includes requisite pivoting cannot raise the bar, especially when those barking the loudest have never strapped in to execute within the profession. They critique with such voracity and smugness, still ignoring the fact that public schools in many corners of this country have unearthed a truth that has existed for years — that schools are too often seen as state sanctioned childcare centers.
Life is messy, but there is a beauty in this mess and hope for what’s on the other side of our hard work. We are missing the opportunity by allowing inflammatory talk to maintain power dynamics inside of the proverbial box, instead of reimagining relationships with students, families, and educators in a way that is respectful and open to reaching fair solutions. To be frank, we are enduring a series of crises that have been exacerbated by our inability to tell the truth about the structures that we have come to know as normal.
We have never been a nation where politicians are so morally motivated that they lobby for chronically absent or truant students, so now to create a cosmetic conviction that kids should be in school no matter the circumstances are disingenuous. We recognize the hypocrisy of the moral call to action that’s being wielded as a political tool; conjuring optics of black and brown children out of classrooms and set aside; but we’ve been ok with generations of Black, LatinX, Asian, and poor white children being latch key kids as their parents worked late hours. By polarizing school communities and forcing for or against logic, we don’t honor the variety of family’s needs and circumstances. Instead of working with teachers and parents to provide the options and security they deserve, leadership refuses to read the room. This is not an issue of educating our kids at all costs, it’s an issue of appeasing the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the populous majority.
I respectfully ask that our nation’s Governors, Mayors, School Boards, and Education Commissioners and others who say we must have kids in person at school amid Omicron’s spike realize that schoolhouses like families have dark secrets within them. Politicians and district leadership would benefit from being unafraid to radically lead through compassionate communication with families and operate on a more nuanced and humane accord. We should be unafraid to use this moment to eradicate the achievement gaps that live in the halls of our schoolhouses, their roots planted pre-COVID and before debating CRT was in political fashion.
Until leaders are inspired by this opportunity to recreate the triangular relationship between school, family and educator, we will continue to be critical community members at odds. We need family therapy, and we must stop talking over each other as we are failing our most precious impetus — our children. When we can all honestly say that we have failed, and we learn to lead with radical love, we can change the game.
Tony Clark is a Professor of African American Literature & Cultural Studies and an Education Consultant.