In the hopes of stopping the spread of coronavirus, many schools around the nation are closing for the remainder of the school year. Many K-12 schools are focused on helping families navigate this new landscape by ensuring access to online instruction and that meals for vulnerable children continue. But what about commitments to equity?

In this challenging time, school leaders must envision a new urgency to attend to the equity and inclusion needs of students, too. Using leadership frameworks from education scholars Muhammad Khalifa and George Theoharis, I recommend a road map of three key actions that school leaders can take to advance equity and promote inclusion during extended school closures.

Define Your School Climate

The work of an equity-oriented school leader has always meant prioritizing the work that centers the lived realities of students. Begin by reflecting upon the beliefs and practices of your school that foster belonging.

Consider how your school has sought to establish equitable access and treatment for all students in a climate that marginalizes many of us by our race, ethnicity, faith, language, ability, class, immigration status, and other identity markers. Then operationalize those beliefs and practices as tangible expectations for teachers, staff, students and family members.  

Consider how your school has sought to establish equitable access and treatment for all students

Young students enjoy the routine of morning meetings where they can share moments about their lives and build community across differences. Leaders can mobilize class parents to build phone trees and plan routine phone conversations among pairs or triads of students. With a little creativity, the phone calls can have active agendas that students complete together by solving a riddle, sharing a personal experience, or playing a game over the phone. 

Older students tend to be a part of groups through classes, clubs, or sports that rely on the direction of teachers to establish equity. Educators can access free videoconferencing resources and facilitate online community time for existing school groups and open opportunities for individual students to be in community with others. 

School leaders should be included in government planning meetings to advocate for open access to local parks for youth who practice social distancing, consider making unused school space available for urgent local needs, and ensure that human services administered by the school can be delegated to local nonprofits. If you come up against inequities in the larger community, call upon the teachers and staff to join you in challenging health, economic, and social injustices so the climate of belonging that resonates within your school can echo across the larger community.

Affirm Inclusion

During a time of extended school closures, teachers and leaders must collaborate to redefine inclusion to center students’ socio-emotional needs. Using the tenets of trauma-informed school leadership, school leaders can plan how to address the complex fears, tension, confusion, isolation, and frustration of the whole school community. 

Many notices are being sent from school leaders that detail issues of operations during an extended closure. In this public health crisis, leaders can address the emotional complexity of the moment in addition to logistics. By relying upon the existing support teams at your school, identify the students and families who need direct assistance. 

Connect virtually with families across differences and strategize how to center their child’s socio-emotional needs with reminders of inclusive practices that teachers employ when school is in session. 

Engage Parents

Parents are under enormous stress and tension. Many school leaders oversee schools with families who were already impacted by trauma, housing insecurity, food insecurity, tension, or illness. School leaders can help empower marginalized parents to advocate for their children’s needs by creating accessible lines of communication between them and parent liaisons, familiar teachers and counselors and community leaders. 

Valuable Resources for Those Parents Like Me Who Now Find Themselves Homeschooling

Again, virtual spaces can be used, but just for parents to congregate and build consensus around the needs of their children. School leaders can mobilize local resources that parents may need, such as safe school-age day care, access to books and manipulatives, youth recreation that instills social distancing, or equipment for students with special needs.  

Failure to enact equity-oriented school leadership during an extended school closure has the potential to put our children and youth at risk in their communities. Marginalized youth are at risk of disproportionately harsh responses by public officials and community members if they gather together, unaccompanied, in public spaces, for example. 

Children and teens are susceptible to mental illness if their socio-emotional needs go unaddressed. The stability of the family home is at risk if parents are unable to meet the physical, emotional, or academic needs of their children. 

When schools close, we risk losing much more than academics—we risk losing our direction to advance equity and foster inclusion. School leaders are passionate about education and devoted to student success. With planning, communication and online tools, they can stay the course and continue to work for equity and inclusion, the principles of community and the heart of every great school. 

Dr. DeCuir teaches at American University’s School of Education. Her work, broadly speaking, focuses on the intersections of leadership, gender, and diverse cultural contexts to advance social justice.

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