The Minneapolis Board of Education is facing an important decision about the future of the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and the students and communities it serves. As the numbers of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations climb, will the state’s flagship school district continue with the safety of distance learning, or open its buildings to more students with some hybrid of in-person and online learning?
I’ve been working with a group of educators of color in the district to urge the MPS board of education to carefully consider the effects of its decision on Black and brown families. There may be no truly good choices here, but some are certainly worse than others.
The experiences of this pandemic are far different for Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities than white neighborhoods. Our message to the board: Do not make a bad situation worse.
For nearly two months, we’ve been teaching with the memory fresh in our minds of the global pandemic and the death of George Floyd was the latest expression of decades of institutional racism in our city. The history of MPS putting the wants of its wealthier, white families ahead of the needs of its communities of color goes back at least as far.
We see this trend continuing with the decision about the next phase of learning in MPS. The district recently sent a single e-mail asking parents for their opinions on the next step in education delivery. One e-mail may be enough for some white families, but MPS needs to do more to reach Black and brown communities where there is less trust that our voices will be heard.
This outreach to BIPOC communities is especially important now. None of us, parents or educators, can give an informed opinion about reopening buildings because the district hasn’t shared enough details about what hybrid learning would look like. Certainly, most educators of color working in the district are not convinced that the district has a thorough plan for a safe return to the buildings.
It won’t be easy for the district to overcome the skepticism in our home communities. The Minnesota Department of Health reports every week how this pandemic is taking a heavier toll on our communities due to systemic racism in health care and other areas. Infections, hospitalizations, ICU stays and deaths are all higher per capita in communities of color than in white ones. Each of the educators I’m working with knows someone who has gotten sick with or died from COVID-19.
We also know that we, as educators of color, are at special risk of catching and spreading this virus if MPS reopens more buildings with policies and procedures that fail to keep us safe. We’re at the center of our communities, at church, in our families, in our neighborhoods. The same personalities that make us good educators also, unfortunately, make us more likely to catch and spread the virus.
For those reasons and more, we are asking Minneapolis parents to join us in asking the board to continue distance learning in our public schools at least until the district comes to the table with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals and negotiates a safe reopening plan, and the district does a thorough and equitable job of presenting that plan to communities of color.
We acknowledge the challenge of helping BIPOC children keep up with the children of wealthy, white parents during distance learning. Nonetheless, we believe continuing with distance learning is the right decision until a truly safe plan is in place.
The quality of online instruction improved over the summer and our district has done a better job of providing the technology our students need. We also believe students will be able to catch up after the pandemic, but not if they’re dead, or mourning the loss of grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, and mothers and fathers. We can make up for lost learning, whatever we define learning to be. We can’t replace lost people.
Make no mistake, the educators of color of MPS want to be back with our students. We recognize that many of our students are school-dependent, but after we add up all the factors, we conclude that the health risks of in-person learning are too high for our communities at the present time. Distance learning should continue.
Angela Osuji, Ph.D., teaches science at Washburn High School in Minneapolis and is the current president of the Minnesota Science Teachers Association.