Opinion: Students need their school communities more than ever

053120 Atlanta: Hundreds of HBCU students march from Cleopas R. Johnson Park to Centennial Olympic Park to peacefully protest the recent death of George Floyd on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta.     Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
053120 Atlanta: Hundreds of HBCU students march from Cleopas R. Johnson Park to Centennial Olympic Park to peacefully protest the recent death of George Floyd on Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Educator says children are living through pandemic while nation is on verge of major social change

In a guest column, a former Fulton County Principal of the Year talks about the nationwide protests and the importance of recognizing what America's young people are experiencing.

Duke Bradley III now serves as vice president of school leadership and accountability with the Atlanta-based education nonprofit, 3DE Schools by Junior Achievement. He is a former school administrator and Fulton County Schools 2018 Principal of the Year. He led Banneker High School in College Park.

By Duke Bradley III

A few weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its guidance for reopening schools during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Upon release, schools were preparing to close out the year – tallying grades, facilitating close-out out activities, and trying to appropriately honor graduating seniors whose final semester had come to an abrupt end.

In a state that has seen almost 50,000 Coronavirus infections and over 2000 deaths, it was ironic that education officials were contemplating the circumstances under which students could actually return to school.

Soon after the CDC released its guidance for reopening, the country was gripped by the horrific death of George Floyd – a black man murdered at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. From that point, and seemingly overnight, cities across the country have been overrun by protests fueled by rage and frustration. Determined acts of civil disobedience have resulted in virtual mayhem in places familiar to us – but to a better end, strategic efforts to bring about change have clearly gained momentum.

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While many bemoan the manner in which these protests have unfolded, there has also been no shortage of public commentary offered about the social and historical significance of what we are experiencing. Many have described a country in turmoil -- fractured by structural racism, partisan politics, and class warfare.

Pundits who describe the state of our republic as "dire" or on the "brink of destruction" do not inspire a spirit optimism, but their accounts also do not seem to fully reflect the perspectives of young people either -– specifically, school-aged children. Even in our darkest days, young people have been able to articulate the prospects of a more hopeful future. Their resolve to create and live in a world that is more inclusive, loving and empathetic has been a trait of every preceding generation despite their differences. 
Like many, I have recently taken to social media to offer thoughts about what has transpired in our country over the past several days. My concerns have been centered on the well-being of children.

I have also reached out to friends of mine – mostly teachers, guidance counselors, and school leaders. Conversations with them revealed a shared sentiment that as our nation continues to grapple with itself, one thing is certain - students need their school communities more than ever.

Schools provide so much more for young people than we give them credit for. At the end of each school-year, it has become common for us to check for school performance results and graduation rates, but rarely do we ask how those same school communities were able to sustain young people throughout the year, give them voice, and help them make sense of their lived experience.

We shouldn’t overlook the exceptionally talented and equally creative teachers within those schools who make their classrooms places of expression and public squares for debate and idea development. In times of trouble and uncertainty, this is exactly what our young people need. As if we needed a reminder, our children are living through a global pandemic at a time when we are on the verge of significant social change. These are the moments that define generations and give the people who live through them identity.

As we contemplate the logistics of a return to school in the weeks and months ahead, my hope that those efforts are not only informed by operational procedures and safety protocols – as they should, but equally motivated by the need to restore the sense of nurture, community, and connection that our students so desperately need.

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