ATLANTA – There’s a debate raging in states across the country about how quickly we can return to normal.
My take: let’s not. Not in May, not in June, not ever. Let’s not go back to normal.
Here in Georgia, normal is what led to COVID-19 disproportionately impacting Black residents, who make up 32 percent of the population and 54 percent of the deaths. Across the country, the pandemic has reflected the race-based inequities that stubbornly persist — that we have accepted as normal. The impact has been particularly acute here in Atlanta, which has the worst income inequality in the nation.
The debate about reopening Georgia — or any state — should therefore not just be about when but about how. A return to pre-pandemic conditions is a return to an uneven playing field, a return to the median household income in one part of Atlanta being $148,480 and $27,525 in a neighborhood 11 miles away.
I come at this from an education angle. I’ve been a teacher, principal, and education advocate in Atlanta for the last 20 years, and the communities most impacted by COVID-19 are the communities that my organization, redefinED Atlanta, focus on. More than two-thirds of students in Atlanta Public Schools — 72 percent — are Black, and more than three-quarters of APS students — 78 percent — qualify for free and reduced-price meals. In fact, the school district’s foremost roles during the coronavirus outbreak have been distributing food and providing access to devices and internet service. Normal is what created a need for APS to distribute 80,000 pounds of food on just one Saturday in March. They ran out within two hours.
The school district’s efforts to provide food for not just students’ families but the entire city is admirable, but it also gives me pause. When did we start expecting schools to not just educate children but to feed them, to support their mental and physical health, and to look after not just their students but also their students’ families? What will the thousands of people getting food from the district do later this month when the school year ends and food distribution stops?
The answer lies with me, and you, and all of us. The extent of our challenge is so significant, the breadth of our needs is so large, that our entire community must respond, not just the district. Now more than ever, educators are going to need to focus on teaching and learning — on getting a sense of where students are academically and emotionally and developing robust plans to close the gaps that have only gotten bigger. The new normal must be bigger, broader, and more inclusive.
After all, when schools reopen, not only are they going to do so with the same inequities that they had before, but those inequities will be amplified by the pandemic. As the late, great civil rights leader Joseph Lowery once said, “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”
Atlanta Public Schools is in a position to act, and it will need to. Despite the millions of dollars that may be coming our way through the CARES Act, districts around the country will likely experience deep cuts as state revenues have all but dried up. The Board of Education’s decision-making will be guided by the strategic plan it recently adopted. The plan is centered on transparency regarding the performance of students, schools, and the district, the equitable distribution of resources, and the commitment to urgently adjust strategies when those schools chronically underperform. In short, the district is primed to assess where the gaps are when kids come back to school, figure out the plan to catch kids up, get kids what they need, and quickly change course if things aren’t working.
Atlanta Public Schools are a microcosm of the inequities that permeate Atlanta and that are a direct reflection of the inequities we see in our entire country. The pandemic has exposed this situation — this normal that we grew complacent with — to the point where it is undeniable and can no longer be ignored. Now is the time for elected officials, policymakers, community leaders and educators to come together and adopt bold, urgent actions that rethink how schools serve students and communities — and how communities serve schools.
It’s time to acknowledge that normal never worked for Black, Brown, and poor kids in the first place.
It’s time to reimagine a new normal.