How can we teach students who aren’t safe at home?
The headline read, “Stepfather fatally shot teen during quarantine fight in an Atlanta home.” A 16-year-old high school student is now dead after disobeying his parents and leaving the house during quarantine, and a stepfather is in jail. Another Black boy is dead from violence, specifically domestic violence. As a secondary school teacher, my heart sank at the news; students like this teenager surround me every day.
The widespread school closures to combat COVID-19 have revealed inequities and disparities for families across the country. Without support from family, students are less likely to succeed in school, yet these structures are at risk of breaking down during the quarantine.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, more than 10 million Americans are victims of domestic violence annually—approximately 20 every minute. Experts have warned that “stay at home” directives are likely exacerbating these incidents of domestic violence, as the stress of the pandemic and the staggering current unemployment rate add more fear and uncertainty to already volatile relationships. What’s more, many of the services that domestic-abuse victims usually rely on are now harder to access.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, my teacher brain has been forced to shift into a new gear. When my school first switched to online instruction, I was frustrated at students who failed to submit their assignments. “They are high school students,” I complained to my fellow teachers. “They are expected to independently follow instructions and utilize learning protocols.”
But I am now compelled to consider the underlying issues that are preventing my students from being their best selves. As teachers, we are forced to reframe our thinking as we become more aware of the daily lives of our students. Many of us have long worked to accommodate students who struggle with being the caregivers for siblings and loved ones. We must now have compassion for the students whose parents are on the front line during this devastating pandemic, forced to make a living surrounded by death. For these moms and dads, their last concern is whether their child submitted an assignment.
In addition to the parents who are caring for the ill, there are those who are ill themselves, taking care of loved ones with the virus, or who have lost their stable income. As I am privileged to be working in the comfort of a peaceful home, my thoughts are especially with parents who are suffering domestic duress in their homes. I think of the students whose safe haven was school but now are forced to be at home all day with their abusers.
The thought of parents and students who are enduring domestic violence on top of the additional stresses wrought by this pandemic is heartbreaking.
I am no longer fixated on the pressures and obligations of my job as a remote learning teacher; my thoughts are instead on my students, their families, and their safety. We must all be aware of how domestic violence—be it a father killing his stepson or a mother being physically and emotionally abused by her partner—can threaten our students and their families.
I appreciate the love from parents and students who send their teachers “thank you” notes, emails, and texts. I appreciate the virtual presence of guidance counselors, who can offer a support system for students and parents—and now, for teachers as well. I appreciate the district administrators who communicate directly with their teachers, share contingency plans, and answer questions in a timely fashion.
Most of all, I appreciate the parents who are keeping their children fed, healthy, and safe. As schools are preparing for the end-of-year shutdown procedures and virtual graduations, let’s also celebrate those parents. Let’s be kind to one another, as we never know what others are going through within the so-called safety of their homes. Even though no professional-development session, faculty meeting, or professional learning team meeting could prepare us for this feat, we charge on.