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Teaching Opinion

Assessing the Needs of Black Students During the Coronavirus Crisis

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 30, 2020 6 min read
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(This is the third post in a multipart series on this topic. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The question is:

What can schools do to specifically support African American students during the school closure crisis?

Part One in this series featured contributions from Antoine Germany and Larry Walker.

In Part Two, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., shared his reflections.

Today, Jamila Lyiscott, Ph.D., offers her commentary

I’ll be adding it to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

“There is no one answer”

Jamila Lyiscott, Ph.D., a.k.a Dr. J, is a viral TED speaker, the author of Black Appetite. White Food, and an assistant professor of social-justice education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a community-engaged scholar, she works closely with youths, educators, and communities throughout the nation, bringing her scholarship and activism together to sustain equity in education, center youth voices, and to explore, assert, and defend the value of Black life. You can see a previous interview with Dr. Lyiscott that appeared in Education Week.

We have always needed schools to understand that Black students are fully human. To imagine that their realities, aspirations, genius, and needs exist fully beyond the four walls of a classroom. Beyond the tattered fences of the schoolyard, beyond the aroma of school lunch and old bleach, beyond the shrill of the school bell, beyond the labels, and grades and standards and metal detectors, Black students live. Full. Cultured. Powerful. Vulnerable. Beautiful. Ugly. Magical. Hardened. Complex lives. And now, attention to this full and complex humanity has been forced upon us all, in a time when there is no escaping the sociopolitical contexts of Black students while they engaged with schooling from their homes.

So now, as we sit in the question, “What can schools do to specifically support Black students during the school closure crisis?” We must ask it in ways that are tethered to the sociopolitical realities unfolding before us all during this coronavirus pandemic. Sociopolitical realities that are exacerbating enduring truths about how our nation has managed to position Black communities, and subsequently, Black students, as most vulnerable in the face of COVID-19. The underlying risk factor is racial inequity. The Black mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of Black students are more likely to be poor and working-class essential workers without the privilege of remote working options. Black families are less likely to have access to equitable health care or healthy foods in the food deserts that exist in too many Black communities. And when Black people do have access to health care, testimony and research reveal salient disparities in how Black people are (under) treated while faced with the racial empathy gap across medical institutions.

Importantly, the question, “What can schools do to specifically support Black students during the school closure crisis?” is not an invitation to pity or save or ogle Black pain. It is an invitation to call out and hold the systemic-level intersections of racial and class oppressions, which act together to force this level of need. And with this repositioning, we must also be clear that when it comes to Black students, we are never addressing at-risk youths, but at-risk systems—that is, systems that continue to fail Black youths as opposed to Black youths who continue to fail within systems. So how can schools at risk of not adequately addressing the needs of Black students in this time step up to the plate during the school closure crisis? The answer is obvious. They must ask Black students. How?

1.Understand and acknowledge that all Black students are not the same

There is a tendency in our society to paint very broad strokes, especially when it comes to communities of color. Given the racial disparities between a mostly white teaching force—where teachers rarely live amongst the communities where they teach—and an increasingly diverse student body, it is important that we never use racial categories to blot out the rich intraracial diversity that exists within Black communities in America. For example, while some Black students exist in lower-income urban households, some live in lower-income rural households. Or middle-class suburban households. And while the term “Black” is a racial category that seeks to designate members of the African Diaspora, broadly, Black students exist across inexhaustible intersections of ethnic categories so that varying heritages, cultures, and nations contribute to a rich tapestry of Blackness (i.e., race and ethnicity are not the same such as African American, Afro-Caribbean, etc.). And of course, as with all students of any race, there are learning differences, differences in ability, environmental disparities, etc., that all shape how Black students are contending with this moment. This is why an intersectional approach to understanding what Black schools can do to support Black students in this moment is essential. There is no one answer. Because all Black students are not the same, the needs of all Black students are not the same.

2. Because the needs of all Black people are not the same, the only way to truly begin answering this question is for schools to assess the distinct needs of Black students in their respective communities:

The only true way to address the nuanced realities of how the school closure crisis is impacting Black students is for schools to be so unrelentingly invested in the full humanity of Black students and Black communities that they design mechanisms for assessing the expressed needs of the local communities where schools are situated. This means bringing together teachers, administrators, superintendents, students, and community representatives to design the one assessment that truly matters: one that turns to Black students and trusts the power of their voices to express exactly what they need for themselves.

Thanks to Dr. Lyiscott for her contribution!

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