As a Durham educator who works with young people, I know that the stakes of dealing with schooling during a pandemic are dangerously high. If we get our school reentry plans wrong, we risk doing lasting damage to our most vulnerable children—damage that could last a lifetime.

I believe we must root our fall plans in a recognition of deep economic inequality and use this moment to address both our educational needs and persistent inequity.

I am a Black woman, an immigrant, an ESL student, and a student who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch throughout my public school education in N.C. I am currently the director of Student U, a community organization that empowers and equips first-generation college students, their families, and educators to become the leaders that will transform our city.

When I was a child, learning from home would have been impossible. On March 12, when Durham Public Schools closed school buildings due to COVID-19, I feared this would be true for the brilliant and mostly Black and Brown young people I work with, as well as the 64 percent of DPS students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Unfortunately, my fears have proven all too real. Our data suggest that a toxic combination of economic oppression, lack of resources, structural racism, and the threat of COVID-19 are converging to threaten many of our children’s futures. Our community is in the throes of imagining what the 2020-2021 academic school year will look like.

We cannot afford to get this wrong.

The plan released by DPS on June 25 provides K-8 students with in-person instruction, launches Ignite Academy, and requires high school students to learn remotely unless they qualify for ESL and EC services. While this plan is subject to change, it does not meet the needs of our children. The plan does not address the depth of the challenges faced by students and families who experience economic hardships, meaning the majority of young people in our district.

Our reentry plan must recognize that learning from home requires a consistent and designated place to study, access to support from adults who can help with schoolwork, daily food provisions, safe environments in which to move your body, and the ability to separate the stress of home and school. As the pandemic increases financial instability, these fundamental needs will be out of reach for many.

High school students who experience economic hardships often work to support their families. For them, schools can serve as buffers that enable them to focus on their education and futures. Without it, many may feel pushed to choose work over school.

Crucially, we must acknowledge that the daunting challenge of the fall semester cannot be resolved by Durham Public Schools alone. Our entire community—county commissioners, state legislators, the city council, as well as business, faith, nonprofit, and philanthropy partners—must engage. At Student U, we’re demanding a bolder plan that prioritizes engagement with the economic issues that continue to shape our community.

First, all families in Durham that can provide a safe and productive learning environment at home for their children, regardless of grade, should do so. Our school spaces should be reserved for students who do not have options to learn elsewhere.

Here’s where the community must step up. Publicly owned buildings with the capacity to be “learning centers”—including recreation centers, libraries, large office parks, and former schools—should be repurposed. DPS could also administer regional hubs that would ease transportation challenges. Also, spaces like farms, community gardens, and parks should be repurposed for learning and trauma-informed therapy spaces.

We need a plan for a curriculum that balances academic readiness with trauma-informed care and activities to process the grief, economic hardship, and increased racialized trauma experienced during this time. We cannot go back to business as usual.

Meaningful workforce opportunities should be developed to simultaneously meet the academic and financial needs of students.

Finally, because many students’ parents and guardians have lost jobs due to COVID-19, our community should fund up-skilling opportunities for adults to gain access to job opportunities that are aligned with Durham’s growing markets and are connected to living wages. Our business community should help create training centers and guarantee interviews for all people in our community who participate in such programs.

DPS will not be able to implement all of these recommendations on their own. At Student U, we’re ready to play our role and do our part to help build a comprehensive reentry plan that acknowledges that what happens in our school buildings is a reflection of the holes in our community fabric.

We need everyone at the table with their ideas and their resources to reimagine our schools. All of our students and families should experience a plan that meets them where they are and ensures that they can continue to learn. Our high school students, who are most acutely left out of the current proposed plan, must feel protected and prioritized.

As a community, we have a duty to journey alongside our district to build a powerful vision for what education in our community will look like during this pandemic and beyond. We cannot afford to miss the opportunity to imagine new possibilities and to invest the necessary resources to make that vision come to pass. It is incumbent on all of us to ensure we get this right. Our students’ lives and futures depend on it.

The superintendent is hosting a virtual town hall today, July 9, from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m., to discuss the plan with the community and hear feedback. We need our voices, ideas, and questions to be heard. Share your questions with the superintendent before the town hall, and email the Durham School Board with your ideas and concerns before July 16. 

Alexandra Zagbayou is the Executive Director of Student U and The W.G. Pearson Center. Student U is a community organization that uses the power of education to build a just and equitable Durham. We empower and equip first-generation college students in Durham Public Schools, their families, and educators to become the leaders that will transform our city. 

The W.G. Pearson Center is multi-use space which houses organizations bound by our commitment to racial equity and justice in our community. Our partners are: Village of Wisdom, We are, Durham Children’s Initiative, Book Harvest, BYP100, The Office on Youth, and Rebuild Fellowship.

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