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With schools being pushed to reopen after a year of Covid-related shutdowns, many people have challenged stakeholders to reimagine education.

The Learning Policy Institute, for instance, recently released a report laying out 10 priorities for state and district leaders to “rethink school in ways that can transform learning opportunities for students and teachers alike.”

Others have argued that “for all its challenges, the pandemic presents an opportunity to rethink school entirely,” and “COVID-19 is our ‘Sputnik’ moment in education.”

Yet, few of the ideas for transforming schools have centered on or included the perspectives of Black students — those most disadvantaged in our education system — in the reimagining process.

Treasure Bernard; Hoang Pham and Lavell Hudson Jr. at KIPP Scholar Academy in South Los Angeles; Lavell Hudson Jr. Credit: Treasure Bernard; Brooklynn Pham; Legend Amor Hudson

As a former classroom teacher, I have worried often during the pandemic about my former students, who are predominately Black. They have had to deal with a health crisis that disproportionately impacts their families, long-standing racial injustice brought to the fore following the police killing of George Floyd, and environmental racism compounded by climate change.

While Black students have been coping with those three pandemics, they’ve also had to continue dealing with a fourth: a school system that severely underserves them.

Recently I reached out to several students to check in about how school was going. What I learned surprised me and convinced me that their voices must be part of any decisions made about what school should look like not just next fall, but now and in the future.

To my shock, Kamron Freeman, a seventh grader at La Quinta Middle School in La Quinta, California, told me, “Remote learning has helped me focus. I went from basic grades to starting to have better grades.”

This did not square at all with research suggesting remote learning worsened inequities in education for Black students.

Kamron’s response challenged what most educational stakeholders have vigorously pushed for: quickly reopening schools. He made me wonder: If we asked Black students how they would reimagine education post-pandemic, what would they say?

I decided to find out, and spoke to more of my former students.

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Overwhelmingly, they recommended overhauling the curriculum. Treasure Bernard, a tenth grader at Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, California, argues that not teaching about our world’s diversity is a disservice to students, leaving them unprepared to enter society and knowing “nothing about our own culture or history.”

Treasure contends that what students learn in school should be relevant to their daily lives, and said she does not want to go back to the old curriculum “because that’s what loses us. We want to learn something that is up-to-date.”

For example, she wants to learn about credit, debt and the Black Lives Matter protests. “Give us something new that relates to what’s going on and will relate [to surviving] when we’re older.”

Sadly, Treasure also told me that “TikTok is teaching me more than school does.”

Lavell Hudson, Jr., a ninth grader at Shepton High School in Plano, Texas, argues that the most important factor when returning to in-person school will be having more lessons concerning world issues. When asked what he would do to make school more engaging, he suggested having more field trips.

“I never woke up for school early, ready to go [unless there] was a field trip,” Lavell told me. “I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep at night, but I would wake up so early just to get dressed and go to school.”

Many Black students like Brandon Freeman and Kamron Freeman have strong views on what schools can do differently in post-pandemic education.

Realizing the inevitability of a return to in-person learning, Kamron also told me that students need to be eased into things once they do go back to school. He asked for a relaxing of the strict rules that limit social interactions, and recommended a schedule change that could help improve student outcomes; the 8 a.m. start time at his school is too early.

With a later schedule, he said, “people wouldn’t be so stressed and could actually get good sleep.”

Brandon Freeman, Kamron’s older brother, suggests a hybrid learning model, in which students can decide what is best for their learning needs: go to school in-person, stay at home and learn online or both.

The ninth grader at La Quinta High School has found an upside to learning from home. “You can be around family members and friends, which can improve your own mental state, and you can have better food and better supplies to support your learning,” he told me.

Brandon wants the preferences of students to be considered. “I feel like in some way or another there should be a way for the student to choose what they work best with,” he said — a thought-provoking argument because it starkly contrasts with the push to reopen schools.

Given the research regarding the ineffectiveness of remote instruction, his suggestion would likely be entirely ignored. However, it is because of this contradiction that Brandon’s recommendations should be considered.

“I feel like in some way or another there should be a way for the student to choose what they work best with.”

Brandon Freeman, freshman, La Quinta High School

Otherwise, what is the purpose of reimagining education if what is “reimagined” is just another version of what we already had, continuing to disregard the brilliance of our most marginalized students?

Theunfiltered views and opinions of the Black youth I spoke with have powerful implications for solving education inequity in the U.S., inpartnership with policymakers.

Ultimately, state and district leaders must think more critically and meaningfully about what Black students need from our education system to succeed — they can start by listening to the perspectives of Black students themselves.

Hoang Pham taught for six years in South Los Angeles and was the recipient of the Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teaching and Harriett Ball Excellence in Teaching awards. He’s now an education consultant at the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning and a student at UC Davis School of Law.

This story about post-pandemic education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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