School & District Management Opinion

We Must Confront the Pandemic Within the Pandemic: Racism

A Virginia superintendent addresses systemic racism in his community and beyond
By Gregory C. Hutchings Jr. — July 14, 2021 3 min read
A large crowd stretching into the distance marches with banners and flags.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed near-unparalleled obstacles before American educators. It also offers opportunities to rethink what we are doing. But the unspoken truth that needs to be expressed is that this latest pandemic developed within another 400-year-old pandemic of rampant racism and the inequities facing Black, Indigenous, and people of color—BIPOC—in the United States.

Like all superintendents, I find myself having to justify my decisions while focusing on efforts to keep our students’ and staff members’ best interests first. An added issue in my case is that I am African American and constantly working to overcome the overt and covert racism that BIPOC leaders deal with. Unfortunately, I even experience racism in my own community.

This dual pandemic has revealed racists across our country. Even during this global crisis, racism found a way to raise its ugly head. As the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd reminded us, BIPOC Americans continue to face racism and unscrupulous practices when confronted by law enforcement officials. We need to tackle racism head on. For educators, this means having the courage to dismantle systemic racism in our schools.

About This Series

Over the coming weeks we will be rolling out 17 lessons from experienced district leaders who spent the last year leading from home. Learn more and see the full collection of lessons.

Despite the pandemic, the Alexandria, Va., city public schools that I lead continue to make racial equity a top priority. Last year, we adopted a five-year strategic plan that forges a path to becoming an anti-racist school system. We started by changing the name of one of our high schools—T.C. Williams High School—whose football team was the subject of the movie “Remember the Titans.” Why do that? Because the school was named after a racist former superintendent who vowed in the face of Brown v. Board of Education to keep our schools segregated. But we must go beyond name changes to tackle systemic racism throughout our nation’s public schools—in curriculum, funding, and opportunities for advanced classes.

Many BIPOC families across the country have been disproportionately hesitant to send their children back to school in person for fear that COVID-19 will take their lives. The data show that BIPOC people experienced longer waiting times in emergency rooms than white people and, in some instances, received substandard medical treatment even before the pandemic.

We must continue to encourage our BIPOC communities to get vaccinated and protect their families from the coronavirus. But it is also imperative that we understand why many in these communities may mistrust the medical establishment. Consider the cruel Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted by the federal government from 1932 to as late as 1972. One of the most infamous biomedical studies in history, the “experiment” left African American men intentionally uninformed about their infection as scientists researched the effects of untreated syphilis—even after penicillin emerged as an effective treatment. Knowing this history may shed some light on why the BIPOC communities are hesitant to take scientists at their word about the value of vaccinations.

So, let’s speak this unspoken truth about racism: The COVID-19 pandemic arrived more than a year ago; our nation’s racial inequities have been around for more than 400 years. Both pandemics continue to shape our lives. We must strive for the day that people’s skin color does not determine their life experiences. We must strive for the day when our BIPOC communities feel heard, seen, and respected. We must strive for the day that all commit to being anti-racist and celebrate our diversity as a source of American pride and strength. When that day arrives, the need to march and protest that Black Lives Matter will evaporate.

We can’t wait another 400 years. There’s no better time than today to take the first step.

Complete Collection

Superintendents discuss ideas at a roundtable.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Getty Images

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion What It Takes to Reinvent High School
How can district leaders launch innovative and successful schools?
6 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Why Principals Need to Talk About the Israel-Hamas War With Our Teachers
What can we do when a difficult topic is brought up by students in classrooms? First, don’t leave teachers to handle it in isolation.
S. Kambar Khoshaba
5 min read
Stylized photo illustration of a teacher feeling pressured as she is questioned by her students.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva
School & District Management Sometimes Principals Need to Make Big Changes. Here’s How to Get Them to Stick
School leaders need their community to take a leap of faith with them. But how do they build trust and conviction?
8 min read
Image of a leader reflecting on past and future.
akindo/DigitalVision Vectors
School & District Management A New Study Details Gender and Racial Disparities in the Superintendent's Office
Women and people of color are less likely than their white male counterparts to be appointed superintendent directly from a principal post.
6 min read
A conceptual image of a female being paid less than a male.
hyejin kang/iStock/Getty