Centering Grace During Virtual Learning: Who’s Most Impacted

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Author: Lindsey Foster is a Research Associate at the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Additionally, she serves as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Bronx Community College for system-involved youth. She holds a BA Howard University and an MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include the experiential nexus of education and discipline with a focus on systems of incarceration and their impact on the education of young people, particularly Black girls.

School discipline data are clear: Black students, especially those with disabilities, are punished at higher rates than their classmates. Even Black students’ dress and hair are seen as punishable. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these same harsh discipline practices continue to contribute to Black students’ exclusion from virtual learning environments. What does it mean when discipline, and not compassion, is the first response to a new educational space? When the immediate and primary reaction to tardiness, behavioral concerns, or faulty technology is to punish and prevent youth from attending school, marginalized students suffer most.

Schools create and reinforce carceral environments for students, especially Black students and those with disabilities. Carceral educational settings exist when schools become sites of surveillance with heightened security measures, increased police presence, and exclusionary disciplinary policies. 

Since the shift to distance learning, it has become clear that the carceral environment extends beyond the school building. One high-profile example was the story of Grace, a 15-year-old from Michigan who was incarcerated after not completing her online homework assignments. Another student, Isaiah, a 12-year-old in Colorado, was playing with a nerf gun during virtual learning and was suspended for several days after school officials called the police to his home. Both Grace and Isaiah are Black students with learning disabilities, a student population who suffers most from harsh disciplinary policies. In Isaiah’s case, calling the police to his home is akin to being complicit in his murder, as was the case with 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was murdered by Cleveland police in 2014 for playing with a toy gun at a park.

Dr. Bettina Love discusses the educational survival complex and its reliance on the suffering of students of color, where schools further perpetuate social inequalities and oppress the most marginalized students. Creating and enforcing exclusionary discipline policies creates an educational environment that pushes students out of an institution that claims to be part of their cultivation. According to Dr. Love, an immediate yet enduring consequence of the educational survival complex is spirit murdering, where students’ cultures, bodies, languages, and existences are continuously policed and punished, causing them to feel unwelcome and invalidated in the classroom.

Students’ bodies continue to be policed during remote learning, with some Tennessee and Illinois school districts implementing dress codes during virtual learning. As students – some of whom have lost guardians, siblings, and grandparents – deal with unprecedented and continued changes, regulating how they show up to a virtual learning space should be the least of school leaders’ concerns. Instead, educational leaders should focus on compassionately centering students’ humanities to cultivate spaces of safety. Remote learning may not be inherently carceral, but the American educational system relies on oppressive structures that spill over into new educational approaches when humanizing practices are not intentionally integrated. 

While these discipline policies may be colorblind in their development, in their impact they affect Black students, low income students, and students with disabilities. Parents of Black and Brown students disproportionately work jobs that keep them away from their homes, making it difficult for them to interact with their children around schoolwork. As a result, students are left to troubleshoot difficulties themselves but are punished when their efforts are deemed insufficient. For example, the Department of Children and Families was called to the homes of numerous Massachusetts students, many of whom were Black and Latinx, as a result of tardiness to virtual school. School districts in California blocked students from signing into their online learning platforms as a punishment. The impersonal nature of virtual classrooms, coupled with inconsistent school closure policies, makes the services that students with disabilities receive incredibly challenging to provide with quality. 

What becomes of the spirits of students who are blocked from participating in class? What are schools saying to those students about their value in the classroom? What does the American educational system’s reliance on police to regulate school disciplinary concerns say about their regard for Black and Brown childrens’ lives?

Dr. Love calls for a praxis of grace as part of a healing approach to learning. Giving students the grace to readjust to open schools will cultivate a positive educational experience and will contribute to the dismantling of an environment that traditionally does not make space for grace. As many schools across the nation begin to reopen, education stakeholders must center a praxis of love and compassion, remembering that our educational institutions should be centers of joy and safety for our most marginalized students.



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