The 'Reopen Schools Now!' Debate Is Rooted In Racism

by Rashelle Chase
A father and a son wearing masks at school
Scary Mommy and SDI Productions/Getty

As we all know, our kids are living through an unprecedented time.

As a nation, there are few still alive that can say they recall a childhood as uncertain, dysfunctional, and precarious on a societal level as today’s kids. It’s also true that the disruptions and inequities of this moment are compounded for too many children whose lives were already marginalized by poverty, oppression and violence. For families of color, America’s inability to provide security is nothing new. American democracy teeters on a razor’s edge as we are polarized by politics and reckoning with the inevitable consequences of four hundred years of racism and genocide. The inequitable systems born of colonialism and capitalism crumble under the weight of global pandemic.

And the parents? We are (understandably) freaking out.

Some parents say, “send the kids back now,” emphatic that we open schools immediately. Soccer moms suddenly profess concern for inner city kids in one breath, and prospects for college admissions for their own kids in the other, as though the stakes are the same. We see white and affluent parents leveraging the plight of historically underserved children as justification to reopen schools now, while actively excluding the communities they claim to be advocating for from the conversation.

As in movements past, BIPOC families are told that there isn’t time for our concerns to be addressed; that we should throw our support behind those with privilege and trust that they won’t forget about us once they’ve gotten what they want. They speak about science and data as though they have a monopoly on these concepts, selecting that which fits their narrative and ignoring that which does not. They display Black Lives Matter profile pictures on social media, while ridiculing and excluding Black voices. They claim that schools are the safest places for kids, and exploit tragic suicides, even when faced with data that we are facing our deadliest months since the pandemic began. And, ironically, they typically claim that “the data” is what is guiding their decision.

These parents fail to recognize a few fundamental things.

I imagine that it is true fear for their kids, and a feeling of unaccustomed powerlessness, coupled with the entitlement that comes with access to opportunity. When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. The sudden recognition by those who have been able to advocate, influence, or buy access to opportunities that they are now in the same boat as everyone else is a terrifying and unwelcome reality.

The first thing these parents fail to understand is that schools have never been the safest places for too many of our kids. Since schools have been closed, these children have had the new (and refreshing) experience of learning in environments free of pervasive racism and bullying. Many kids with IEPs have found learning easier separated from the noise and activity of the traditional classroom. For the first time in a generation, children and teachers are free from the worry and danger of school shootings. While distance learning certainly hasn’t been a great experience for all children, it has been a refuge for many children who weren’t safe in schools in the first place, children whose needs have long gone unmet. We must recognize this.

Claiming the safety of schools on behalf of underserved children is a disingenuous argument and ignores the fundamentally destructive impact that racial and economic oppression, and physical violence, have on children and their ability to learn in schools. While it should not be ignored that there are too many kids who are unsafe in their homes or not having their basic needs met, it must also be acknowledged that teachers have filled the role of social workers for so long that parents forget it’s not actually their job. Teachers have long gone above and beyond the work of teaching in order to meet children’s basic needs. The closure of schools forced us to look at the gaps that are left in their absence, but with little to no attention centered on why we’re content to live in a society where children have to rely on school for food, heat, and in some cases, physical safety. Reopening schools is not the solution to fixing America’s broken social safety nets. It’s not a teacher’s jobs to fill in these systemic holes, even though most will do it.

Second, many of us from BIPOC communities come from communal traditions. Some of us live in multi-generational homes or rely on the support of extended family members in raising our children. Whether we’re Indigenous, Black, Asian or Latinx, for generations our survival in this country has been grounded in our ability to rely on one another for safety, security, and community. Even as some parents and children may be at lower risk for COVID-19 complications, we are not willing to bring COVID home to our elders. Our communities are disproportionately ravaged by COVID as it is. We’re more likely to contract COVID and die from it, due to the social inequities BIPOC face in healthcare and socioeconomic safety nets. We rely on one another, and caring for one another means protecting each other – particularly our most vulnerable. Potentially sacrificing grandparents, aunties and uncles to send our kids into the classroom simply isn’t an option.


Getty Images

Third, there are greater fears than missing a season of soccer, or the SATs, or the fun of senior year. Parents claiming to advocate on our behalf are not in solidarity with marginalized people if they feel their fears outweigh ours. Education is not something that BIPOC communities take for granted. It is a right that was historically denied us, particularly those of us in the Black and Indigenous communities and is something we’ve fought for across generations. Because we’ve had to struggle for the right to equitable education – a struggle which continues to this day – we understand that there are many ways to learn, even when traditional avenues are denied us. We find ways to support one another and meet needs collectively, because if there’s one thing that is more precious than education, it is life.

For those of us whose ancestors survived enslavement, genocide, displacement and segregation, flexibility and ingenuity when it comes to meeting our children’s basic needs is a skill that has been passed on through the generations, a skill born out of necessity. We aren’t strangers to adversity and have had no choice but to think outside the box in order to survive. We know that this moment too shall pass, and are committed to reaching the other side with our families intact.

While white and affluent parents advocate for the “choice” to return, they miss the fact that when it comes to our public schools, choice has long been a dog whistle for exclusion and marginalization. That until we are all free, none of us are. Rather than putting their energy and resources into solving the social and educational inequities that they claim to be against, efforts that could make surviving this moment in time more tenable, they demand their right to choice, which just demonstrates they would be content to leave the rest of us behind as long as their needs are being met. “Choice” in this context is a total illusion. What presents as a “choice” to those with means becomes an ultimatum for folks whose employers no longer have to accommodate alternate work schedules (or working from home) once schools have reopened, again putting families of color at increased risk.

Of course, there are BIPOC families that are eager to reopen schools just as there are BIPOC families who believe they should remain closed for now. Our opinions are not a monolith, and are shaped by our own experiences and needs. However, we are capable of advocating for ourselves, whatever our views may be. The ability to advocate and organize is not new to us – it’s how we’ve come as far as we have, despite the opposition of the status quo, and despite fewer resources when it comes to time and access.

White families, and other families with privilege, do not have the right to speak on our behalf. If they truly believe they are somehow advocating for us, they must make space at their tables…or acknowledge us when we show up with our own folding chairs, to paraphrase Shirley Chisholm. They must recognize that their perception of our reality is inaccurate, and do not have to commit to agreeing, but to listening with the intent to understand. They must seek out voices across demographics and center those voices, not just their own. It’s nothing new, but claiming to be in service of marginalized people while insisting on leading the conversation and dismissing those who disagree is peak performative allyship and is paternalistic, oppressive behavior rooted in American’s white supremacist history.

As a nation, we find ourselves at a crossroads. The damage of the last four years has culminated in a catastrophic public health crisis that is shining a light on our historic inequities and fissures. In spite of the tragedy and hardship of the last year, the COVID-19 crisis has presented us with opportunities to make long overdue changes both to how we educate children and how we care for one another. The COVID crisis has intersected with the resurgence of the civil rights movement, and the two events cannot be seen in isolation. It’s time for white people to put action behind those Black Lives Matter profile pictures and actually hear what Black folks and other people of color are saying. It’s time to hand over the power and influence and learn to support diverse communities, rather than speaking for them or over them. And it’s time to stop viewing teachers as serfs and finally respect their labor, both in the classroom and online.

The last year hasn’t been easy for any of us. But just as the last decade has amplified the fear of the right wing as they’re confronted with a changing world, we’ve seen this fear come to life on the left as well, especially over the last year. White supremacy is not the domain of any particular political party; rather, it’s the implicit belief in the cultural, intellectual and social supremacy of white folks over everyone else, and we see it as often by those claiming good intent as we do from explicit racists. And we see it now in the words, actions and vitriol ignited by the “open the schools now!” movement.