Pandequity: The Importance of Asking Unanswerable Questions

Pandemic Summer School in Winchester, VA, photo via the Winchester Star

Before the school year even ended this spring, I started wondering about what the return to school plan would be for the fall. My experience as a parent dealing with pandemic schooling has been easier than most. My kids are white, solidly middle class, conventionally-abled, and responsive, generally, to boundaries and clear expectations. They’re also older (12 and 17), so I don’t have to supervise their day-to-day learning very much.

I was able to file for unemployment and quickly started receiving benefits so that I didn’t have to worry, while making sure my kids were getting their work done, about my own work expectations or whether or not my bills were going to get paid.

And even with all of that being true, I want my kids to go back to in-person school so badly it hurts. At the same time, I worry about the environment they will be returning to, though not necessarily for them. Given all of their privileges, including general good health and solid health insurance, they are unlikely to experience the worst aspects of this pandemic even if they go back to school in-person, full-time in the fall.

But not all kids have the same privileges as my kids. What will the school reopening plan mean for black students and other students of color? What will the reopening plan mean for kids with learning disabilities and/or mental health issues?

Armed with all the privilege, and resulting access, at my disposal, I set out to ask these sorts of questions. What I quickly discovered was that my questions didn’t have any easy, or clear, answers, but also that they led to more questions. Questions, admittedly, that I should have been asking for a long time.

The Importance of Asking Questions

I was raised in a religious community that is all about asking probing questions that have no definitive answers. Quakers call them queries, and we use them regularly to stimulate introspection and reflection on our faith and practice. That’s the thing about questions, they stimulate our brains, either to alleviate the discomfort of uncertainty, or because we anticipate some reward in learning new information or developing deeper insight.

Even if you don’t get answers, or find your question is unanswerable from a definitive standpoint, what you’re left with are more questions, and thus more opportunities for brain stimulation. Bring on the serotonin and dopamine!

But the feeling of having the “right” to ask questions is a function of power. People in power get to have questions, get to expect answers. People who don’t have power are actively, and often violently, discouraged from asking questions. Questions make people think. People who think, and who believe they have the right to ask the questions that stimulate thought, are harder to control.

Getting into the habit of asking questions, even if they don’t lead to definitive answers, creates an environment that challenges existing power structures. Don’t ever let anyone tell you “I don’t think that question has an answer” is the end of the conversation. That is just the very beginning.

The Questions At Hand

Thinking about school reopening plans I had two main subjects of inquiry.

  1. What would safety protocols that inevitably require increased levels of social control mean for marginalized students, who are already subject to disparities in discipline? How do we prevent the burden of fear and expectation from falling disproportionately upon them?
  2. If we have students who are unable to comply with enhanced safety protocols (mask wearing, social distancing) due to neurodiversity or mental health issues, how are we going to keep those children safe and provide adequate instruction? And in a mainstreaming district, how are we going to navigate compliance with students who do not manage those challenges and are sharing space with those that do?

None of these questions have easy, or definitive answers, at the moment. But they do lead to some important information we all should make note of, and some further questions that we all should be asking.

Let’s tackle them one at a time.

Racial Disparities in Discipline, with added Pandemic for Flavor!

Racial disparities in school discipline are a well-documented reality. In 2019 the National Academy of Sciences published a comprehensive study by Travis Riddle and Stacey Sinclair showing that racial disparities in school-based disciplinary actions are associated with county-level rates of racial bias.

I contacted Riddle about his research, and asked if he had any thoughts on how trends in racial disparity in discipline might play out in school reopening plans. He said:

The research on racial bias and school discipline suggests that the disparities are largely due to minor offenses that are more subjective (e.g. talking back, disrespect). To the extent that new educational protocols leave room for subjectivity, then the research indicates that we should expect disparities to manifest…You’re right that mask-wearing is relatively objective, but I think determining whether someone is appropriately social distancing is a little more subjective. Unless school administrators are going around with measuring tapes to evaluate whether the space between students is indeed 6 feet, judging whether students are complying with such a policy leaves ample room for subjectivity.

So, what does that mean in real time for my local school district? What are their plans for addressing these issues?

I interviewed Ithaca City School District Board of Education member Eldred Harris, who has served on the board since 2009. He detailed the many steps that ICSD has taken in the last 11 years to address educational disparities, particularly around race- accumulating and reporting equity data, training staff in taking responsibility for their own biases, supporting staff via Master Educators, Instructional Coaches and Equity Mentors. According to the data, Harris noted, out-of-school and in-school suspensions have drastically decreased overall in response to these efforts, but disparities still exist.

When I asked him if, even with these improvements, he had concerns about the potential for increased racial disparities in the enforcement of heightened behavior rules, he seemed confident that ICSD culture wouldn’t allow it:

If we are using the language of discipline to address those situations of behavior we have already lost. I can’t see us being punitive in response to children’s natural desire to congregate and be with each other, especially in the elementary age set. That is not the culture we have encouraged here.

But what about the rest of the county? There are six separate school districts in Tompkins County. Are any of them tracking racial disparities in discipline? Would they even know if disparities in discipline increase once schools reopen?

Meryl Phipps, Executive Director of Village At Ithaca, noted that none of the other districts in the county are publicly reporting their equity data, like Ithaca does through the annual Equity Report Card. They are reporting the data to the U.S. Department of Education, as required by law. They’re just not telling it to the rest of us, so there’s no way for anyone to know how marginalized kids were fairing in those districts prior to the pandemic, and no accountability to the public at large if things get worse.

Safety Protocols and The Social Contract. Kids are just like us!

Wearing a mask all day is unpleasant, for all of us. For most of us, we just have to, and should, suck it up. But what about kids with sensory issues that can’t handle fabric touching their face, or kids with anxiety who get panic attacks where they feel like they can’t breathe? What about kids who, when dealing with sensory overwhelm and emotional outbursts, have to be physically touched or restrained? What about kids whose neurodiversity means they just can’t sit still and maintain a recommended social distance?

How are we going to take care of those kids, and all of the kids sharing classroom space with them?

When I began asking these questions I was expecting to write two entirely different posts- one about racial disparities in discipline and one about challenges for students around neurodiversity and mental health. Then I spoke to Erin Fierst, a mom in Trumansburg, who reminded me that in many of our smaller, rural districts they don’t have enough population to be that divided in their focus. After forming the first ever Special Education Parent Teacher Organization (SEPTO) in Trumansburg, Fierst realized the group needed to embrace and advocate for any and all differences families are marginalized for- special needs, race, mental health, sexual orientation, gender diversity. By law, districts are not allowed to discourage parents of students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) from participating or asking questions, but without the formal legal protections of an IEP many families are rebuffed or ignored.

On top of what they were already dealing with prior to the pandemic, marginalized students and their families “will be dealing with fresh trauma” when schools reopen, Fierst insisted.

Trumansburg Families Embracing Differences is their Facebook group, where district parents are welcome to connect and ask questions. Fierst noted in our conversation that communication from the district since the beginning of the pandemic has been confusing and inaccessible, especially if parents are also dealing with learning disabilities. The district recently circulated a survey for parents and guardians regarding their experiences with distance learning, and desires for scheduling in the fall. She felt the survey was similarly inexplicable and flawed, which has left her with tremendous concerns for the ongoing support of students with learning disabilities particularly.

For kids with special needs, families cannot necessarily assume responsibility for their instructional needs. Fierst said that these kids need in-person support and instruction, because they are falling further and further behind. It is unclear how districts are going to handle catching up special needs children on top of the enhanced needs of all children after nearly an entire semester of limited instruction.

In Ithaca I spoke to Erin Kerr, whose has one daughter at Lehman Alternative Community School and another at New Roots. One has a 504 plan. Both deal with neurodiversity challenges. I also spoke with her kids. When we asked what each of the kids would think if they were in a classroom with another student who wasn’t wearing a mask, their responses were mixed.

The 12-year old insisted, “If someone else wasn’t wearing a mask then I wouldn’t want to wear one. It wouldn’t be fair.”

The 15-year old was more pragmatic. “Wearing a mask all day would be unbearable because I have sensory stuff around textiles. If someone else can’t wear a mask and they’re not just doing it because they don’t want to, which I’d know because of the way the teacher would be responding to them, I’d be okay.” she responded.

Their mom noted that the question shows the ways in which our children are dealing with a microcosm of the conversation we’re having throughout the U.S. right now about the social contract. She argued that “equal” and “fair” are not the same thing. “Fair” means everybody gets the same treatment, but “equal” means everyone gets their needs met, which may mean kids who have the privilege of being conventionally-abled have to take responsibility for doing more than other kids:

The schools have to have the conversations with the kids in order to get the privileged, able-bodied kids on board with extending themselves for the good of the whole.

Which, if they figure out how to do, they should tell the rest of us, because adults are failing at this at the moment.

Kerr expressed hope that the district would include instructional aides as well as teachers and administrators in formulating the reopening plans because “they know the kids best”. She acknowledged that inevitably, regardless of the plan, there will be trial and error, which will lead to disparities. Still, she felt that ICSD has done a better job than many at prioritizing students’ emotional and mental health needs since the pandemic began. She hoped that prioritization would continue. “That’s the social contract”, she said. “We take care of the vulnerable.”

I sat through an entire webinar with the ICSD leadership about fall reopening plans. I asked them how they were anticipating navigating this conversation about the social contract and special needs kids compliance versus other kids compliance. Their only response was, “Per guidelines, kids who can’t wear masks won’t have to.”

The Lingering Questions

As of right now, the governor’s office has requested all districts across the state submit their plans for reopening, yet it has not offered health and safety guidelines that might effect those plans. The Board of Regents has been holding virtual public meetings to gather feedback and “ will synthesize the findings and prepare policy guidelines and regulatory changes for the fall” to be announced July 13, according to online news outlet Iohud.

The Governor’s office will decide on fall school reopening in the first week of August, according to its website.

Every possible plan that could be instituted, whether it is full-time, in-person instruction, entirely distance learning, or some hybrid of the two, will present challenges to all children and families. But I hope that those of us with some measure of privilege will look beyond the needs of our own children, our own families, and think long and hard about what the implications of any plan may be for our most vulnerable students. We must model for our children our vision of the social contract, and that vision should be that we protect the vulnerable.

We must keep asking questions, even if they have no easy, definitive, permanent answers. If we do, we have the opportunity to transform this endless tragedy into a new, more equitable educational and social reality for all of our children.

Here are my lingering questions:

Why aren’t all of our local districts reporting equity metrics?

How do we continue to prioritize the mental and emotional needs of our children as well as their academic needs?

How do we ensure that every student in the county, regardless of school district, gets the support and education they need?

How do we reformulate instruction to accommodate more personalized learning paths for all students, including those students who have benefited from distance learning because they aren’t subjected to over-stimulating or oppressive learning environments?

What are your questions?

Asking questions, telling stories, giving my people information they can use to make change happen.

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