A Challenge and an Opportunity: COVID-19, ending systemic racism, and strengthening B.C’s public education system.

We’ve all heard it: “We’re in this together.” (But are we, really?)

This in-it-together mantra can be a rallying cry for solidarity or it can be used as a distraction for doing nothing to change the systemic barriers that make COVID-19 worse for some communities, but not for others.

COVID-19 presents both the following challenge and opportunity:

  • The challenge: Overcome the barriers and inequities that COVID-19 makes worse.
  • The opportunity: A rallying cry to overcome inaction and actually break down those barriers and inequities for good.

We can overcome systemic racism and colonialism – now – given all the attention that COVID-19 requires. But doing so requires a plan, a process, and a commitment to hold ourselves to account. It requires action and urgency.

COVID-19 Threatens to Deepen and Harden Barriers to Justice and Fairness

Racially-based inequities in public schools, in terms of program quality, graduation rates, racial justice and reconciliation, curricular content, support levels, resources, and other educational deliverables for equity-seeking students and communities, are made even worse by this pandemic.

Emergency remote teaching, and the proposed dual-track model to follow, puts the most vulnerable students at the greatest disadvantage. Gains in literacy, numeracy, and other learning outcomes are at risk for too many students – when safe access to in-person instruction is put on hold.

Schools also provide access to healthy food for many students and are a source of community and emotional support for students. That’s another reason why safely reopening schools matters so much for the vast majority of students and communities across B.C.

Students who are entitled to learning supports, from special education teachers and education assistants, risk losing these supports when in-class instruction isn’t available. It’s unfair to rely on families to make up these gaps, especially for families in poverty – who depend on public schools for their child’s formal education.

Families that rely on public schools to support their child’s learning may not have access to digital devices, the Internet, or have the time away from work for home-schooling their child. Public schools provide a valuable support for many students, one that is not easily replaced through remote teaching and learning or dual-track models that include continued remote instruction.

We Share an Opportunity from COVID-19: Get Things Right – by Working Together for Racial Justice and Reconciliation Now

Given the above challenges, the teaching profession is in a unique position to advocate (now) for:

  • The safe reopening of schools, especially for the students and communities who need it most
  • Prioritizing access to in-person supports and education for vulnerable students
  • Addressing systemic inequities in the education system, especially on issues that must be addressed on an urgent basis due to COVID-19

We should also go beyond these measures and draw attention to other aspects of systemic racism and colonialism in B.C.’s public education system. With so much turmoil in the news, around both the economic and social disruptions of COVID-19 and the mass protests for racial justice around the world, now is the time for teachers to collectively push for affirmative action in our profession, recruiting and retaining BIPOC teachers (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), integrating BIPOC perspectives and histories throughout the curriculum, and transforming the teaching profession around the principles of racial justice and reconciliation.

What the BCTF is Doing Right Now to Move Things Forward

Last week the B.C. Teachers’ Federation proposed that the government form a stakeholders’ Pandemic Planning Committee. The union also called for participation by its Aboriginal Education Advisory Committee and anti-racism advocates within the teaching profession to each have integral roles in this proposed committee’s make-up. This reflects the importance of raising the priorities of racial justice and reconciliation, especially when developing government plans during the pandemic.

In support of the union’s calls for a government Pandemic Planning Committee the union’s Professional Issues Advisory Committee (PIAC) met yesterday and passed two related and timely recommendations.

One recommendation calls for an issues session on professional issues and COVID-19, to widen the circle of engagement in preparation for the union’s participation in a government Pandemic Planning Committee. The second recommendation calls for the union to develop its own professional guidelines for schools – during this and future public emergencies.

The recommendations made by PIAC, to the BCTF’s Executive Committee, include the following commitments to racial justice and reconciliation:

  • Ensuring that students’ health and well-being at school are considered when COVID-19 school plans are made and implemented by the government
  • Defending the integrity of public education during COVID-19
  • Protecting the rights of students who are marginalized and/or disabled by systemic inequities
  • Addressing systemic racism through professional guidelines for schools to advance racial justice and reconciliation in B.C.’s public education system

Now is time to transform how we engage with each other as a community and how we work together to seriously address systemic marginalization and inequities. The promise of public education is universal access to community-based public education. Done right, this is empowering and humanizing.

The teaching profession is in the midst of an historic moment – right now. Urgent action is called for in this time of crisis and opportunity. With back-to-school in September, coming sooner than most realize, now is the time to engage with BIPOC communities, reflect deeply as a profession on racial injustice, and to collaborate together, with government and other stakeholders, to prioritize making “we’re all in it together” a call for action, solidarity, and justice.