How ‘Social Distancing’ Is Changing the Way We View Schools

Apr 1, 2020 12:00:00 AM


Paradoxically enough, as Washington, D.C., has slid from mass school closures into social distancing and working from home toward increasingly likely shelter-in-place, my neighborhood is erupting with families. 

There are at least five new babies on our block, with another two or three arriving soon. As traffic on the roads has dwindled, the neighborhood has taken to the sidewalks. From dawn until dusk, the park down the road boasts an explosion of strollers, baby carriers and bikes fluttering around in the blooming spring warmth. 

I spend a lot of my days with our baby now—watering plants, digging weeds, practicing new words. People stream past constantly. Some wear masks, some don’t. Most meander wide, out and around onto the curb when passing neighbors heading the other direction. The vast majority greet us with smiles and a wave. 

That’s the pandemic here in Northwest D.C. It’s … globally terrifying, but locally lovely. Somehow the public health crisis has replaced our neighborhood’s recent spate of gun violence with an era of good feelings. It’s not perfect—those smiles stretch across tight, anxious faces—but still, it’s an astonishing change of pace.

It’s already clear that this is one of “Those Moments,” the ones where we all come out of them a little bit different, wised-up with new insights about how we live. This time, [pullquote position="right"]if nothing else, we’re learning that our communities are greater than the sum of their individual members.[/pullquote]

Right now, we’re more alone than ever. We’re maintaining our distance. But we’re all in this isolation together. As Jamelle Bouie wrote recently in the New York Times, “In forcing people to stay away from each other, the outbreak has made our mutual interdependence clear.” 

That’s what drives lonely parents and their rambunctious kids out into almost-close proximity with one another in the park. When we spend our days around people, it’s easy to fixate on how they make things more difficult for us—and miss how much we need them. Once we can’t spend our days with people, we ache for them. 

What if we took this lesson back with us when the call for social distancing ends?

What if we took seriously the abundance of goods we get from participating fully in our communities? 

Shifting the Way We View Schools

This would radically change the usual view of schools—as a zero-sum resource of variable quality. Far too many privileged, wealthy, often White families treat schools as a scarce commodity, something that they buy to set their children up for success. Ask privileged parents what they want from schools and they tell you that they’re less concerned with what their kids know and more with ranking their kids against others. 

There are more of those privileged, White parents in my neighborhood now than there were when we moved here many years ago. This month’s crowded sidewalks are filled with their toddlers, their strollers, their anxious wincing as they arc around one another, keeping their distance. Washington, D.C.—and its schools—are becoming more diverse. The same thing is happening in many other cities across the United States. These little kids are part of that story. But it remains to be seen whether this is a story primarily of integration … or of gentrification, colonization and displacement.

I know this growing tribe well. These folks often move to neighborhoods like mine “for the diversity.” And yet, when it comes time to send their kids to schools, their warm liberal hearts turn cold and calculating. They sidle up to me at playgrounds and ask me if a particular public pre-K is “safe,” meaning, “is it safe for my unique and special and privileged child?” 

They find out I “work in education” and ply me for secrets on how to work the city’s school enrollment systems to secure a “good” school for their kids. They sweat and contort themselves to avoid explaining that when they say “good,” they mean “mostly-White” or “mostly middle-class” or (usually) both of those things.

In other words, this tribe—my tribe—is prone to absenting itself from the full and diverse richness of its community. When privileged families use their advantages to hoard and segregate opportunities for themselves, they—we—don’t just perjure the best of the American democratic creed, hypocritically awful as that is. We don’t just harm communities of color, immigrant communities and low-income communities. 

Not only do we harm our plural, diverse communities, we also do real harm to ourselves. [pullquote]When we absent ourselves from the fullness of our shared lives, we thin out our children’s lives[/pullquote] and distort their views of their country. We limit them culturally, socially and academically.

Breaking Down the Distances Between Communities

“You’re so brave,” folks sometimes tell me, after learning that we send our children to an urban, public, Title I school. And I shake my head, not to disagree, not exactly, but to try to clear my brain a moment, to try to puzzle out any reason that we would ever pull our kids from a school that constantly gives us so much. It helps break down the distances between communities and allows us to grow and even revel in our connections with each other.

It can be hard to see the personal costs the privileged incur by absenting themselves from the rest of society. Segregation is such an old, slow, steady current in the United States that its costs generally vanish into the background as residual casualties—simply the way things go because of the way things are. But perhaps the loneliness and fear we’re all feeling today can help more parents notice the damage done. 

Our current public health predicament yanks the underlying principle into the foreground, impossible to miss: now, in our various stages of quarantine, we are all separated as individual units ... but we’re also increasingly aware that each of our choices affects all of us. When we act selfishly, we damage our community—and, ultimately, we harm ourselves.

Conor P. Williams

Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Williams was previously the founding director of the New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group and a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. He began his career as a first grade teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Dr. Williams holds a Ph.D in government from Georgetown University, a M.S. in teaching from Pace University, and a B.A. from Bowdoin College. Most importantly, he's a dad.

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