A Plan for Addressing the Hate Pandemic in Schools

Last month the Center for Disease Control released new guidance to help schools safely reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan details measures schools can and should take to stop the spread of the virus. To support these efforts, President Biden has requested an additional $130 billion to help update school buildings and purchase safety equipment. Clearly, guidance and financial support are needed for this unprecedented challenge. However, there is a second pandemic that has been insidiously spreading throughout our schools and that has gone unaddressed – the pandemic of anti-immigrant hate and xenophobia.

This ‘other’ pandemic predates the spread of Covid-19, but similarly, once airborne, it virulently spreads unless we take protective measures to control it. Even before last March, there were signs of an alarming increase in polarization, xenophobia, and hate. Significant demographic changes associated with immigration, deeply fractured partisan politics, a renewed reckoning with a national legacy of racial injustice, and rampant disinformation created a powder keg of discord and violence that threatens our shared future. According to the FBI, since the 2016 election hate crimes have been rising precipitously against Latinos and Asians, a disturbing trend that has accelerated in the wake of Covid-19.

What does this anti-immigration epidemic look like in schools? 

Teachers, principals, school counselors, and other staff often report the ripple effects of our anti-immigrant socio-political context. Two important studies out of UCLA, affirmed that these attitudes have cascaded into schools for the majority of both educators and students. In February 2020, just before schools largely shutdown, the Washington Post reported that schools were facing an average of two xenophobic incidents per school per week since the 2016 election. Students taunt one another with chants of “build that wall.” Shockingly, teachers are sometimes also part of the problem, telling their students to “go back to their country” or, as in one well-circulated photo, dressing up for Halloween in costumes with colleagues as the border “wall.” 

We know that xenophobic bullying adds to the cumulative trauma of children, many of whom have encountered harmful stress during their own migrations. Being the target of hate activates “toxic stress” which researchers have demonstrated has both short-term implications for social and emotional functioning, motivation, and cognition as well as long-term health implications for health. Traumatic exposures negatively affect student learning at school by decreasing students’ ability to focus attention, regulate emotions and behavior, and develop positive relationships with adults and peers. Students who have been exposed to trauma often experience the world as a dangerous and untrustworthy place. Simply put, traumatized students cannot learn the way they should.

In the pandemic of hate, immigrant-origin youth, a group which now makes up 27% of our national student population, are often targets of overlapping prejudices as both members of immigrant families and as young people of color. Yet as relative newcomers to our nation, they are often left out of the recent conversations about equity, even though over 80% of such students are kids of color – originating from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, or Africa. These young people are the faces of the future and we should all be rooting for their success. However, anxiety about demographic change in media, from political leaders, their peers, and sadly even some of their teachers, threaten that support.

In order to re-open our schools safely, we need to know how our learning environments (school districts, schools, and classrooms) are serving their vulnerable immigrant-origin students.  We need to take the temperature of school climates to get a sense of how teachers, administrators, and other school faculty think about these students. Are we appropriately educating our students about migration and the demographic changes that are often at the root of the rise of bigotry? How can we assure that the fastest-growing sector of the child population can thrive and that our schools foster environments where students learn from each other about what we all share as human beings while appreciating our differences?

If schools are to re-open safely, we need to take this virus of hate seriously. Educators need the equivalent of the new CDC guidelines to help them address the impacts of xenophobia. Solutions won’t be one size fits all, but to do this work right, there is a need for a serious shift in the current approach. 

Here are five steps that we should commit to right away. 

First, we need to better understand the identities and lives of the children we are teaching. Second, it is time to reconsider what is most important to teach and learn in this time of rapid demographic change. Third, it is essential to evaluate what and how we teach about the shared and divergent experiences of humans. Fourth, we should harness the power of our diverse communities by create learning inclusive environments that can protect against the spread of hate And finally, we need to re-imagine the way we educate and train teachers so they are best prepared to take an active role in creating a sense of belonging in their classrooms, the first step in preventing the next xenophobic outbreak. Despite the urgent need, learning about how best to serve immigrant-origin students, teach about migration, or manage difficult conversations about immigration is rarely part of educator training.

It seems that most people now recognize that in order to safely reopen our physical schools, all relevant constituents need to do their part.  If we are to effectively begin addressing our hate pandemic, no less coordination is required. And if we fail to act with appropriate urgency, this toxic virus of disunity will continue to spread and harm not just our present, but also our future. 

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