Everything is different going into this new school year. Many school classrooms and hallways across our country remain empty, as many of our school boards and school leaders continue to fight to protect our students, families, and educators from the threats of COVID-19.

As the effects of the pandemic continue, our school boards, school leaders, and state legislators must consider the intersectionality of school and community health and safety and the opportunity gap that has been amplified as a result of school closures.

What did we know as we entered this crisis? We knew that school systems across the country were fighting hard to close gaps in student outcomes between students of color and their white classmates. We also knew that many of our students of color live in poverty-stricken communities where their safety, health, and well-being was a concern before the pandemic.

Throughout this pandemic, we have learned that educational racial disparities have been substantially amplified and pose greater risks to the safety, health, and opportunity of our most vulnerable school communities. With the new school year in motion, we’ll get a deeper assessment of the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on our school communities. As we discover the full impact of this crisis, it is paramount that our school boards, school leaders, and legislators consider the intersectionality of safety, health, and educational opportunity when making plans to help our school communities heal and thrive.

As schools continue to reopen, it is important that our leaders consider the central question: What do our communities need to be safe? This question is critical as many school systems continue to grapple with their role in two ongoing national conversations: reducing the exposure and spread of COVID-19 and keeping students physically safe in a world of both mass school shootings and police misconduct in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Keeping schools safe cannot be done without considering the health and well-being of students, educators, and their families. Our leaders have a moral and social responsibility to respond to the health needs and social-emotional trauma of its students, employees, and their families directly or indirectly affected by COVID-19. Our leaders should create flexible plans that offer support for students and employees to keep their families safe and healthy without penalty. This is especially critical in our low-income communities of color, where health disparities in preexisting conditions are disproportionately greater, which exposes these communities to even greater risk of being impacted by COVID-19. 

Our recent national crises have made one thing clear. Our school system leaders must work with local communities to redesign a modernized and resilient public school system. Our leaders must consider how to use assessment tools to gather a full picture of the impacts of these crises. This data must then inform how we set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART); inclusive; and equitable student outcome goals. And our student outcome goals must be driven by anti-racist policies and practices. Most importantly, our leadership should be laser-focused on how to best support students and families in achieving their boldest aspirations, post-pandemic.

We leave you with one last fundamental truth: Intersectionalities exist among school safety, health, and opportunity, especially in our most vulnerable communities. In fact, we argue that these considerations are vitally interdependent and critical for the future of our children, school workers, and their families.

Jacinto Ramos Jr. is the 2020-21 chair of the CUBE Steering Committee and president of Texas’ Fort Worth Independent School District. Jared Williams is a science educator and a social impact cultivator in the non-profit sector.

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