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It’s Monday in Miami, Florida, and I’m observing classrooms as a teacher coach. As I walk to the back of the classroom, the first thing I hear is a student murmur under his breath, just loud enough for me and the students around to hear: “Cough, cough, coronavirus.”  

It felt surreal. I didn’t expect a student to bully me for being a Filipino American. I was immediately triggered by the rhetoric, but I didn’t want to disrupt the flow of this first-year teacher’s lesson.

The teacher didn’t notice the remark but the students around did. So I ended up asking to see if I could speak to the student outside privately, to create a teachable moment for him. When I made the request personally, the student refused, replying, “What do you you mean? I didn’t say anything.”

This concluded my attempt … for now. But the incident brings important matters to light.

While many students are misinformed about the coronavirus and ill-equipped to respond, we find ourselves with an opportunity in which we can teach students to respond to a dire global issue with grace and empathy.

This response is particularly important when it comes to the Asian community. Today across the globe, anti-Asian — and disproportionately anti-Chinese — racism and xenophobia are spreading rampantly across our classrooms. When social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram become the main sources of news for our students, unverified claims can be mistaken for truth.

As an Asian American, I know this behavior is not occurring in a vacuum. This type of othering can be traced back in America to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, in which Chinese laborers were denied immigration to the United States under the false pretense that they were stealing American jobs. In 1924, this act was amended to exclude other Asian groups as well.

Today, beyond racist and xenophobic rhetoric, this issue is resulting in violence toward our Asian students, parents and community members.

The coronavirus crisis has created a moment in history in which educators and administrators can shift the narrative and reality for an entire community.

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Here are five ways that we can start combating anti-Asian sentiment in schools: 

First, do your research. There’s so much information and so many personal stories about how the coronavirus has negatively affected the global community from health, economic, psychological and social perspectives. Before addressing the issue, build some time for yourself and read up on coronavirus to gain insight, clarity and empathy. This may seem like common sense, but doing research will help clarify the ways you can address the issues with grace and respect.

Second, address the issue district-wide and school-wide. While many schools are explicitly addressing this as a global public health concern, they may omit how misinformation is leading to racism and xenophobia toward the Asian community. If you don’t have an agenda around coronavirus and teaching, or if you have one but don’t feel equipped to address this with grace, please reach out to your diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) specialist in your building or district. If you don’t have such a specialist, hire one!

Third, address the issues in the classroom. If you witness any anti-Asian rhetoric or gestures, please develop a plan to address this. Likewise, if you feel ill-equipped to do this with grace, do research on how to best approach this and notify your administrators so they can help. When hurtful rhetoric and gestures are not addressed in the moment by teachers, this may signify to students that the issue wasn’t urgent enough to change how we operate. 

Fourth, weave history into your curriculum. One long-standing issue that Asian communities face is our historical erasure and lack of visibility in contemporary U.S. curricula, across content areas. Because of this lack of visibility, classrooms often teach about us in a monolith, which is counterproductive and erases myriad identities and experiences within the Asian American diaspora. One tool that I often use with my own students and teachers that is well-suited to coronavirus and teaching about discrimination is the Asian American Racial Justice toolkit, which helps educators unpack and dismantle structural racism toward the Asian American community.

Fifth, and finally, normalize positive Asian narratives in your curriculum. While teaching about history can bring up painful memories of Asian exclusion, violence and pain, it’s equally important to balance this with positive Asian and Asian American narratives because we are more than just a summation of negative stories. There’s power in teaching about our solidarity across racial coalitions to help build bridges and close empathy gaps across lines of difference. Women’s History Month in March is a great opportunity to normalize the positive narratives and contributions of Asian American Women.

This list is by no means exhaustive. The point is to illuminate what is happening with coronavirus and teaching, and how we can act in the best interests of our Asian communities and the global community at large. Some of these suggestions are pre-emptive, reactive or long-term. As with many issues, there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach — because the issues are complex and evolving.

However, there are ways we can lean into our shared humanity, and I hope these suggestions can help spark that change for your school.

This story about COVID-19 and teaching was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Tony DelaRosa is a Miami-based anti-bias and anti-racist educator, motivational speaker and cultural broker who serves as a teacher leadership coach for Teach For America and a consultant in the New York City Department of Education through NYC Men Teach. He founded Pulse Poetry and is a former senior editor of Asian American Policy Review, a student publication of the Harvard Kennedy School.

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