When schools shifted to remote learning at the beginning of the pandemic, there was an overwhelming sense of loss for kids. This included loss of routine, social experiences, support for disabled and neurodivergent students, and food security. Almost two years later, teachers are reporting signs of trauma in their students.
Online learning and frequent quarantines have had disproportionate impacts on families of color. Black and Latinx families have opted into remote learning at much higher rates than white families.
But despite the negative impacts of the pandemic on children, there has been increasing coverage on the ways remote learning has shielded Black students from racism in education. Many Black families reported that the pandemic prompted them to create an educational experience free of pervasive white norms, racist discipline practices, bullying, tracking into Special Education, and white-centered curriculum. Prior to the pandemic, around 3% of Black students in the U.S. were homeschooled and by October 2020, the number had risen to 16%.
An Unexpected Change
As parents of two Black children, my partner and I noticed a drastic change in our kids’ behavior when they began learning remotely. While we fumbled through technology glitches with two energetic kids and dealt with our own fears about COVID-19, we saw that our children were thriving. This sharp improvement seemed to confirm what we had suspected: our kids were experiencing a significant level of stress at school, with visible impacts on their mental health.
In the months before, we had reached out to school administrators and play therapists as we tried to support our 7-year old. Intense emotional outbursts–frequent crying, yelling, and hitting–only showed up at home. We speculated that our child was using all his energy to meet expectations at school and was crumbling the moment he arrived at home. Our 4-year old showed signs of diminished self confidence. We feared that her experiences would be compounded by the intersections of racism and gender oppression experienced by Black girls.
Our time together during lockdown was a chance to approach learning through our kids’ interests, affirm their strengths, and deepen connections to their Zimbabwean culture. They read stories about Black inventors, worked on their Shona language comprehension, tried out new recipes in the kitchen, and participated in online activities facilitated by Black teachers.
Reflections on Racism in Education
Each evening, my partner and I reflected on the ways that education was harming our kids, rather than helping them grow to their full potential. My partner made connections to the trauma he experienced in boarding school in post-colonial Zimbabwe, where he was forced to reject his culture, conform to rigid expectations, and learn information that was irrelevant to his lived experience and interests.
We recalled the countless instances of racism in education that our kids had already experienced:
- As a preschooler, our 4-year old son proudly introduced himself to his new principal, enunciating his Zimbabwean name several times, only to be told “That’s a mouth-full. I’ll just call you Mr. Smiley.”
- As a kindergartener, our son’s white teacher sent him to the office throughout the year. When we noticed differences in the ways his white peers were disciplined, we were told that it was a “time-in” rather than a “time-out.” They told us there was no racial bias influencing the teacher.
- That same year at school, he received the children’s book, “Five Little Monkeys,” a revised version of an anti-Black minstrel song.
- We approached school administrators about the problems with “Crazy Hair Day,” and decided to keep our daughter home from school. We felt it would be too damaging to see non-Black kids wearing their hair in ways that mimic the protective styles worn by Black girls like herself.
Our list went on and on.
Valuing Humanity and Wellness
Our decision to homeschool our kids has allowed us to foster their creativity and critical thinking rather than compliance, and affirm their inherent worth as Black people. We are intentional about representation in curriculum and materials, and include many examples of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian people who are typically erased from the narrative or discussed only in the context of our oppressive histories.
Racism in education and resulting traumas contribute to increased anxiety, difficulty focusing, feelings of helplessness and frustration. These trauma-response behaviors often lead to further consequences–including contact with law enforcement and lower graduation rates–due to racist policies and practices.
At Center for Health Progress, we’re fighting for a health care system that values humanity and wellness over profits. Similarly, the fight for anti-racist, equitable education recognizes that Black kids and other kids of color deserve an educational experience that values their humanity and prioritizes their well-being. Our family's experience is a reminder that we must continue to focus our attention ‘upstream’ to create systems that allow people to thrive, not merely survive.