Even when the pandemic is over, our schools cannot go “back to normal.”
We are rightfully debating what it would take to make our schools safe for reopening — to the extent that it is even possible at this moment, with the pandemic worsening and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous families harmed at the highest rates.
But as a parent, former teacher, and education civil rights attorney, I know the pandemic should only be part of the discussion on schools reopening because some of our students have never been safe in our schools. And some of our schools have never given our students the education they deserved.
For some of our country’s students, school safety and preparedness means a lot more than protecting them from COVID-19. What does school readiness look like to Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students, and students with disabilities, who are over-policed and over-disciplined? To girls and to all LGBTQ+ students who are harassed and not protected? To Black girls who have their bodies policed by dress codes? To Latina girls whose schools fail to meet their mental health needs?
What does school readiness look like to LGBTQ+ students of color, who experience every one of those concerns combined? According to GLSEN’s reports, over half of all LGBTQ+ Black, Latinx, Indigenous and AAPI students feel unsafe in their schools just for being who they are.
We must take the resetting opportunity this pandemic gives us to reimagine how our schools can meet the needs of all of our children and youth. What we know for sure is the Trump administration and its Department of Education, led by Betsy DeVos, won’t get us there.
If the administration cared at all about our learning environments, maybe they wouldn’t have rolled back protections for sexual assault survivors, or rolled back guidance on protecting and supporting trans students or on reducing racially discriminatory school discipline. Maybe they wouldn’t have issued a report on school shootings that somehow failed to examine the role of guns. Maybe they would have responded to — instead of ignoring — a congressional request to provide information on how they plan to support Latina mental health. Maybe they would have done anything at all.
In the face of the Department of Education’s failure to protect all students, youth advocates are stepping up and taking the lead in reconceptualizing what our schools should be. While students have been all but ignored in conversations about schools reopening, they have long been taking action to demand what they need from their schools.
This summer, as lockdowns took hold and Black Lives Matter protests erupted, I met virtually with four LGBTQ+ Black and Latinx youth advocates who worked with me to develop and test a youth advocacy curriculum for classrooms and after school programs. The final project, called Brick by Brick, is grounded in the leadership tradition of LGBTQ+ people of color, and promotes youth empowerment in the form of know-your-rights education and advocacy training.
We are working to teach students that they are part of a history and legacy larger than themselves — a history of power and pride. Our youth are seeing and participating in one of the most important civil rights movements of our lifetimes. They can see that LGBTQ+ Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are leading movements like Black Lives Matter, the movement against gun violence, the movement for immigrant rights, and the continuing fight against transphobic and homophobic laws and policies. Seeing this, they realize that they can be leaders too; that they deserve to feel safe and valued in their schools. They know that Black Lives Matter at school, too. They are fighting for schools with counselors and not cops.
They know that school safety is so much more than mask policies, and that true inclusion means going beyond changing a school’s name to changing the school curriculum. They know that school readiness is measured not just by the format of instruction, but the content.
As part of our school readiness conversations, we must follow the lead of the Brick by Brick youth advocacy fellows and youth around the country by decriminalizing schooling, supporting student survivors, teaching inclusive curriculum that includes civics and advocacy, and investing in student mental health.
Whenever and however schools reopen, we cannot go back to “business as usual." Together, we can build better, safer and more inclusive schools, brick by brick.
Noelia Rivera-Calderón (she/her or they/them) is the Tom Steel Fellow in the Education Team at the National Women's Law Center. Her work focuses on ensuring safe and supportive school climates for students, particularly focusing on LGBTQ+ students of color. At NWLC, she leads ongoing advocacy for Latina mental health in schools. Noelia has been published in Refinery29, Remezcla, and The Lily. While completing her J.D. at Temple Law School, where they were named a 2018 National Jurist Law Student of the Year, Noelia spent time at Juvenile Law Center, Education Law Center, and National Juvenile Defender Center. Passionate about students’ rights, she is a published authority on school disturbance laws and has spoken on school discipline reform, mental health, and other issues facing LGBTQ+ students of color. Before their career as an advocate, Noelia was privileged to teach eighth grade Social Studies in her hometown of Philadelphia.