Pandemic Schooling and the Politics of Safety.

AuthorKelly, Lisa M.
PositionSpecial Issue: COVID-19 and the Law

Introduction I. The Politics of Safety II. Pandemic Schooling Conclusion Introduction

In this time of pandemic, few institutions have proven as essential or precarious as public schools. After the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic in March 2020, schools across Canada closed for in-person learning. (1) A few weeks later, the provinces and school districts lurched toward remote learning. (2) Parents and families scrambled to find childcare while also attempting to navigate virtual learning. Women working in the formal and informal economies performed ever more "reproductive labour"--the essential work of raising children, cooking, cleaning, laundering, grocery shopping, and now supervising online schooling--which capitalist economies tend to neither acknowledge nor compensate. (3)

As the pandemic scythed its way through care homes, prisons, and communities of colour, another political scene of death unfolded. An eight-minute and forty-six second recording seized the attention of a world locked down. The slow killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers played out on television and computer screens in a seemingly endless loop, continuing a centuries-old tradition of treating Black suffering as spectacle. (4) The state had proven itself unable to protect its citizenry from a virus while still capable of inflicting violence on Black and Brown people. In Canada, similar images and deaths confirmed what Indigenous and Black peoples have known and resisted for generations. In June, a video circulated of an RCMP officer punching and tackling Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam to the ground in an encounter over an expired license plate tag. (5) Protests erupted across North America and globally as a necessary means of political expression against state and civil society failures to combat systemic racism. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote at the time, "[t]his simultaneous collapse of politics and governance has forced people to take to the streets--to the detriment of their health and the health of others--to demand the most basic necessities of life, including the right to be free of police harassment or murder." (6)

These two moments of pandemic precarity and racial reckoning have converged in debates and decisions about "school safety". The question of whether and how schools should reopen has been one of the most contentious policy debates of the pandemic. Concerns about school safety have also magnified racial and class divides that long predated this crisis. Despite the oversized media attention that families in whiter, more affluent communities have received, it is Indigenous, Black, racialized, and working class families that have deeper and longer experiences of distrusting that schools would do right by their children. (7) Much of this concern attaches to the very idea of "school safety" in contemporary law and policy. Long before the current public health threat, lawmakers and courts treated schools as unsafe places in need of heightened security and surveillance. From zero-tolerance discipline policies to enhanced school surveillance to the rapid expansion of school resource officer (SRO) programs, school safety mandates have transformed modern student life. In so doing, they have borne down unevenly and unequally on lower-income students, students of colour, Indigenous students, and students with disabilities. In an age of austerity in which governments have cut school funding and reduced social services, the promise of safety for some students has often been premised on the punishment and exclusion of other students.

In this paper, we consider how inequalities in pandemic schooling are producing learning gaps that may have lasting impacts. Emerging data suggests that students from more affluent and whiter demographics have returned to in-person learning at higher rates than their lower-income and racialized peers. When families with more resources have opted for remote learning, they have been able to supplement online lessons with technological knowhow and social engagement through private "learning pods". More marginalized families are making different safety calculations. For a number of reasons including higher rates of local COVID-19 spread, fears of infection in multi-generational homes, and longstanding mistrust in public schools, they are opting for remote learning at higher rates without the necessary supports. This paper situates these constrained family "choices" in the longer trajectory of school safety laws and policies in Ontario that have borne down unevenly on Black and Indigenous students, poorer students, racialized students, and students with disabilities. The most vulnerable students have often been under-protected and over-policed.

We conclude by asking what a just remembering of this pandemic might entail. Reflecting on the largely forgotten influenza pandemic of 1918, we urge a present acknowledgement of educational injustices that may reach far into the future. To remember is necessary if we are to imagine a public education system that would more democratically meet the needs of all students.

  1. The Politics of Safety

    Public performances of solidarity, grateful acknowledgments of healthcare workers, and ubiquitous calls that "we are all in this together" marked the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic. (Many people also stockpiled toilet paper.) As the spring wore on, however, and the initial shock of closures and shutdowns wore off, it became evident that the burdens of COVID-19 were being borne unequally. The pandemic data confirmed what social epidemiologists would have predicted: poorer people, those unable to take paid sick days, Black and Indigenous peoples, racialized people, those living in densely populated areas, incarcerated people, frontline workers, and residents and staff in congregate living facilities were at greatest risk of infection. While the pandemic's devastating first wave in New York City attracted global attention, far fewer noticed when the Navajo Nation later surpassed New York with the highest COVID-19 rates in the United States. (8) At the time of writing, the rate of reported COVID-19 cases amongst First Nations peoples living on reserves is seventy-four per cent higher than the general Canadian population. (9) Rates of infection in federal prisons, in which Black and Indigenous peoples are vastly over-represented, are up to nine times that of the general population. (10) In the City of Toronto, by the end of 2020, more than three-quarters of people with reported COVID-19 cases identified as racialized, despite racialized persons making up only a little over half of Toronto's population. (11) Likewise, people living in households considered lower-income represent almost half of all COVID-19 infections in Toronto, despite making up only thirty per cent of the city's population. (12) The pandemic has burdened those most whose backs were already against the wall.

    Amongst the millions of working class people laid off in the first wave of pandemic closures was forty-eight-year-old George Floyd. Floyd had been working at a Minneapolis restaurant before the stay-at-home orders left him without a job. On May 25, 2020, a world shut down watched a video filmed by a seventeen-year-old high school student. The footage--now the most viewed video of police brutality in history--showed a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for over eight minutes until he died. The reason for the police call: Floyd had allegedly passed a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill to pay for cigarettes. People poured into the streets. Although a brutal act of bodily violence sparked the protests, activists immediately decried more systemic, less visibly jarring forms of police power, what sociologist Monica Bell has described as of "the structural and symbolic variety". (13) One of the institutions to which parents, community members, and students immediately turned their attention were public schools and the...

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