Schooling for equity during and beyond COVID-19

Schools are closed. Physical distancing is happening. Playgrounds are off limits. Life as we know it has shifted invoking fear and anxiety for both young people and adults. These emotions manifest differently for families depending on their context. Perhaps a caregiver has been laid off causing financial stress and food insecurity; perhaps there is no access to technology; or, perhaps a family member is ill. The variations are endless. 

And then emerges the question of schooling. What will public education look like moving forward? Will it simply replicate the status quo of inequitable access in an online platform (with additional implications for surveillance, privacy and public accountability)? Or, will the disruption to the system as a result of COVID-19 provide space for us to re-envision schooling in a way that dismantles practices and structures that further advance the privileged? Watching the first wave of online resources being shared with students and families, as a temporary solution to continued schooling—and recognizing the danger in assuming e-learning to be without its own power structures or as somehow “neutral”—we felt compelled to share a few considerations for “Reimagining Schooling” in the time of COVID-19.  

Public education is a structure which historically and currently marginalizes particular populations; the reality of crisis and the “solution” of online learning only serves to underscore and exacerbate the issue. Therefore, when we engaged in homeschooling our own racialized children, despite our 20+ years of teaching students, principaling schools and being a principal coach it was still a thoughtful process. Why? Because it brought us back to two central questions: What is the purpose of education, and what are the conditions required for young people to achieve their full potential? 

It didn’t take long for us to fall squarely within our belief systems and embrace pedagogies which challenge inequities. The Ministry of Education, Human Rights Code and Canadian Charter remind us that it is our duty and responsibility to challenge inequities. A crisis does not negate such responsibilities. It only enhances them. 

Given the reality of having to do things differently, we must carefully consider what leading the learning of students during the COVID-19-related closure of schools can look like currently, and going forward. For us it means reaffirming our commitment to anti-oppressive approaches and culturally relevant pedagogy by asking questions like the following:

Questions that School Administrators can consider with leadership teams as we re-envision public schooling:

  1. Who are ‘vulnerable students’ in our care and how will our new model of schooling remove barriers and create more educational opportunities for them?
  2. Who are the families that we have failed to engage thus far and how will we ensure that something new/different happens in this context?
  3. How can we ensure that the social/emotional/academic supports we are providing are culturally relevant and responsive? 
  4. Who has the strongest relationship with our most vulnerable students and how can we position them to support instead of defaulting to past structures (e.g. grade teams, established classes, etc.)? 
  5. How can we acknowledge the strengths of students/staff and position them to be critical supports for their peers?
  6. How can we ensure that our reliance on technology for learning and an online platform doesn’t widen the divide between privileged and underserved students but rather closes gaps?

Questions that classroom educators can consider as we re-envision public schooling:

  1. How will I create a sense of belonging and ‘human connection’ for each child in a time of physical distancing?
  2. How will I build trust and strengthen relationships with families, particularly those who I have struggled to engage thus far or with whom I don’t share a common language?
  3. How can I use this crisis to support students to become better problem solvers, to explore issues of power, and think critically about the world we live in?
  4. How can I ensure that the work provided does not contribute to additional stress in the home or parent responsibilities?
  5. Given the limitations of e-learning, and leading learning from home where I may have other immediate responsibilities, how will I plan my time so that students who need the most care, connection, scaffolding and feedback receive it?

How do we help without hurting? Avoiding the Saviour Complex
Regardless of how large or small a school’s vulnerable population may be, it is imperative to not position families as  the ‘have nots’ and educators as the ‘brave saviours’. While students and families may have particular urgent needs, this does not negate the many assets they do possess.  Emotional resilience, ingenuity, and determination are just a few of the resources that marginalized families and communities have learned to regularly mobilize. 

We must be careful about not ‘labeling’ students and/or families, but rather facilitating conversations to ascertain specific needs. Simply sending a grocery store voucher to a family who we ‘think’ is in need, but may have already resolved any food security issues, is unproductive and disrespectful. Interactions with families should include asking how they are doing and finding out what they may be concerned or thinking about in general (and specifically with the schooling of their children). 

The tendency in a crisis can be to solely focus on the social/emotional needs of students and families—feeding that saviour complex—and ignore the imperative to have high academic expectations for students (which by no means implies “schooling as usual”). To quote critical pedagogue Sonia Nieto, “Nice is Not Enough”;  perhaps the forced reimagining of schooling allows us to focus on addressing systemic oppression that further marginalizes vulnerable students, moving us to equal educational outcomes.  

Final Thought
We need to do our own research and deep thinking about the causes of disparities so we can interrupt the patterns of disadvantage now and in the post COVID-19 world. We also need to consider who is positioning themselves to benefit from the crisis (think of the exponential growth in privatized education initiatives post-Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, with tremendous implications for social and educational equity), as well as the impending political implications of how we respond to it. This is important work that needs to be prioritized.

One final question for reflection: as the adults try to figure out how best to provide schooling for students, who is stopping to ask the kids?


Alison Gaymes works to disrupt educational practices that continue to disadvantage historically marginalized/underserved students. Her passion for equity and justice has led to a secondment at York University’s Faculty of Education and her current position as Centrally Assigned Principal for Principal Coaching, Equity & School Improvement with the Toronto District School Board.  

Ramon San Vicente is a principal with the Toronto District School Board, educational activist, and author of various texts. He is passionate about creating spaces for youth culture in public education, exploring critical pedagogies and challenging oppressive practices in schools. Follow him on Twitter at @RamonSanVicent2.