Ellyn Ahmer, Nancy Michaels, Sarah Schriber (Illinois Balanced and Restorative Justice and Prevent School Violence Illinois)

Barely into a new calendar year, we continue to experience unprecedented challenges. As with any economic, public health, or political strife, these times have been especially challenging for poor people and people of color. But we have also been presented with unprecedented opportunities. What was previously understood by many as a theoretical knowledge of inequity, our education, public health, and political systems’ reactions to COVID-19, white supremacy, and economic strife have gifted us with real-time examples of how inequity operates and its devastating impacts.

In the context of education, our children’s worlds changed – literally – overnight. Remote learning came on swiftly. Schools rich in resources offset delays in academic learning and social development quickly. Parents with resources hired educators to lead learning pods or left the workforce to supervise their children’s coursework from the safety of their homes. Other parents had no choice but to leave their children to themselves or in the care of their siblings while they went into an unsafe world to make ends meet. Many contracted the virus and many died. While some schools were equipped with the technology to make remote learning work, others were not. Some families had ready access to the internet and others did not.  Schools lost thousands of children whose tethers to their school communities were cut. These inequities hold open and expand the achievement /opportunity gap between white and well-resourced students and everyone else.

As restorative justice advocates and practitioners, we feel an urgency to raze former notions of mediocre normalcy and leverage what feels like a clarity of vision to co-create truly equitable schools. Our urgency is augmented by the formal introduction of COVID-19 vaccines because our young people will return to their brick-and-mortar schools sooner rather than later.

Starting today, as schools plan for the academic supports students will need when they return to their buildings, we challenge them to plan with as much intention for their human needs. These plans should be steeped in restorative justice foundations which focus on reconnection, community building, lifting voices, healing, and moving forward. These plans should include practices such as welcome-back circles and restorative dialogues. Let’s ask students (and adults) how they are. Let’s ask what they need and co-create meaningful responses to meet them. Let’s give our students (and adults) the chance to shed heavy emotions that if not released could manifest in aggressive behavior and the inability to focus so that they can get back to the business of learning.

To be clear, the past year has not been easy for anyone. As a country we are living a series of intersecting and collectively traumatic experiences. One important source of hope is that so many teachers and students – as different as they may be – have survived and thrived, together. Let’s use this rare common ground to do school right. Marshall Roseberg said: Empathy before education; connection before correction.

We end with a question: Will you step to the challenge?

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