The last 18 months have been like nothing any of us could imagine. The COVID-19 pandemic has had us working, worshipping, and schooling from home. Students without reliable Wi-Fi have been at a distinct disadvantage and the lack of regular peer-to-peer as well as adult interactions have taken a toll on their social and emotional well-being. 

However, COVID-19 is not the only pandemic we have faced. The uptick of anti-Black racism resulted in the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and many more is another.

A third pandemic is the impending economic collapse. Despite a number of federal government initiatives, families in our community are still concerned about possible evictions or foreclosures. Far too many African Americans have lost jobs or had their work hours cut. Economists report that 2.2 million U.S. women left the workforce either to be caregivers (to children or elders) or because of
job loss. 

And fourth, we are facing environmental catastrophe. In the western U.S. region devastating fires are ravishing the lands. In the Southern Gulf Coast region there are more hurricanes and more intense storms than ever. In our upper Midwest region, we are experiencing both drought and intense tornados.

COVID-19, racism, economic peril, and environmental threats have become a part of our lives. Yet, we are charged with getting our children and youth ready to return to school. And, what kind of school year are they facing?

Given the major challenges our young people are facing, I am arguing for developing a radical welcoming for our students. Their formal education has been sporadic and remote over the past 18 to 19 months. We must begin to do some things to remind them that school is not merely about teachers, or principals, or bus drivers, or cafeteria worker, or librarians. School is about the students!

The concept of “radical welcoming” comes from the world of theology. It’s designed to encourage church communities to be open and welcoming to those who are different from them. The radical welcome is extended to the “other.” In schools, our children and youth are often considered the other. They do not fit the mainstream vision of who and how students should be. We hear conversations about students not “being ready” for school or coming from families and communities they “do not value education.” In truth, our students too often are entering a hostile place that does not affirm or appreciate who they are. What would a “radical welcoming” look like for our children?

In a recent professional development presentation, I shared a short video where a young African American teacher welcomes each of his students with a special handshake (see, that includes claps, stomps, slaps, and dance moves. I suggest to teachers that I don’t expect them to develop this kind of intricate choreography with their students but that they should begin to think of what it would mean for students to come into a classroom each day knowing that the teacher was there to greet each of them personally. How are we telling students, “We really want you here?” There are at least three things educators should do to radically welcome students into the 2021-2022 school year.

Be prepared for their arrival. When we welcome friends and loved ones into our homes, we go to great lengths to prepare for their arrival. We clean, organize, and tidy up. We put fresh linens on the bed and provide clean bath towels. We might stock the refrigerator and pantry with their favorite foods. We organize our schedules to accommodate theirs. We prepare for the arrival. How do teachers prepare for the arrival of African American students? Historically, we did not! In the post-Brown era Black students entered white schools that made no preparation or accommodation for them. African American children were regularly met with hostility and anger. Let’s make this year one where our children know we are prepared to receive them.

Introduce them to what’s new. Since it has been so long since students have had a typical school year, lots of things will seem new. Explain the COVID precautions that the school requires. Share with them the new ways your classroom will operate. They may not be allowed to share school supplies or snacks. Help them measure six feet or be aware how they can access hand sanitizer.  Be sure to bring new personnel to their attention so they will know the name of the new adults they may encounter at school.

Allow students to participate in designing the space where they will learn. For elementary students this may mean designing and decorating the classroom space in ways that reflect themselves. Professor Rudine Sims Bishop (Professor Emerita, Ohio State University) argues that we should provide students with “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Mirrors are the books and curriculum materials that allow to see themselves. Windows are those books and materials that allow them to see a wider world and sliding glass doors are the skills and abilities that allow them to travel comfortably between the two. For secondary students designing the space might be as simple as helping them to develop a class playlist so that favorite songs are played as they arrive or depart the class each day.

Among the Masai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania the typical greeting is “Kasserian Injera” or “How are the children?” The appropriate response is, “The children are well?” It signifies the notion that if the children are well, then the community is well. I believe if we offer our children a radical welcome to this new school year, they will be on the path to being well. And, we as a community will be on the path to being well, too!  

[Gloria Ladson-Billings is the president of the National Academy of Education and professor emerita at the University of Wisconsin Madison. She’s authored several books including, “The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children” and “Critical Race Theory in Education: A Scholar’s Journey (Multicultural Education Series).”

In the 1950s, when she was fifth grader at a segregated Philadelphia public school, her teacher broke with the school curriculum to regale her students with tales of accomplished Black Americans who weren’t mentioned in textbooks. “One of us would stand sentinel at the classroom door, and she’d say, ‘If the principal comes, turn to page 127 in the U.S. history book [and pretend to be learning that],’” says Ladson-Billings. From that experience as a 10-year-old, she grew to question not only how race and ethnicity were traditionally taught to young students but also who was doing the teaching.]