Shane Sukerman, Co-President at Queen’s Law Level Chapter
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Canadians have been forced to adapt. From mask mandates and social distancing measures to lockdown orders and curfews, our lives have changed from top to bottom — and this without counting the thousands of lives lost to the virus itself.
One of the most enduring shifts of the pandemic has been the transition from in-person to remote work and learning; “Zoom” has effectively replaced the phrase “going out” in the lexicon of the everyday Canadian. While many of us have been privileged enough to work or learn from home, it is unsurprising that this forced transition — one which is reliant on access to technology and jobs conducive to remote work — has exacerbated many of the inequalities rampant in our society.
Racialized groups have consistently accounted for a disproportionately large share of COVID-19 cases throughout the pandemic — in November of 2020, nearly 80% of COVID-19 cases in Toronto identified with a racialized group, while only 52% of the city’s population identifies as racialized. Neither genetics nor biology explain these disparities. Social and economic systems and hierarchies have produced uneven risks of exposure and unequal rates of disease burden. Working-class people from racialized communities are more likely to work on the frontlines and thus are at greater risk of infection. To put it bluntly, remote work and learning as a safety precaution has created another class of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, magnifying the systemic inequalities that existed in our society prior to the pandemic — something which is equally true in the context of pandemic schooling.
In their essay, “Pandemic Schooling and the Politics of Safety”, authors Lisa M. Kelly, Deniz Kilinc, Sonia Lawrence, and Cosimo Morin explore the disparate impacts of remote learning for lower-income and racialized families versus their higher-income and whiter peers, with particular attention paid to the history of policing “school safety” and the influence this has for parents assessing risk today. Examining the aforementioned pandemic changes alongside the massive protests against systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in May 2020, the essay points to the ways in which pre-existing racial and class divides have influenced decisions about “school safety” during the pandemic.
For decades, “school safety” policies have over-punished and under-protected the most vulnerable students. From “zero tolerance” policies mandating automatic suspensions and expulsions for certain infractions to partnerships between school boards and police services to have officers present in schools, school safety policies have borne down unevenly on racialized students and students with disabilities. While the province of Ontario and local districts have rolled back many of these programs and replaced them with so-called “progressive discipline” approaches, data shows that racialized students continue to face unequal rates of discipline at school. Racialized families have made decisions about school safety during the pandemic partly against this background.
The essay notes that Canadian researchers have warned that the educational skills gap between higher-income and lower-income students has already widened as a result of school closures during the pandemic. Lower-income families may be unable to secure the internet bandwidth, technological know-how, and adult supervision and encouragement necessary to make remote learning feasible. And, yet, the emerging data shows that these families are returning to in-person learning at lower rates than their wealthier and whiter peers. In the context of the hybrid model adopted by Ontario (which allowed parents to choose whether their child would return to in-person schooling or continue remotely), early data suggests that higher-income and whiter families have opted to return to in-person learning at higher rates than lower-income and racialized families.
Why might students and families most in need of the educational and nutritional supports of in-person schooling continue to “choose” remote learning? Surely, higher rates of local COVID-19 transmission as well as anxieties about elders in multi-generational homes explains part of the calculation. However, as the authors suggest in this essay, mistrust that school officials will do right by their children is also surely part of the picture. When working-class and racialized students have been over-punished and under-protected by “school safety” policies in the past, it is little wonder that they would find it difficult to trust that schools will keep their children safe in a pandemic. Of course, some working-class parents have been placed in a situation where they have no choice at all — despite the possibility of infection, it remains the case for many families working on the frontlines that alternative child care simply is not affordable, and thus their only option is to send their children back to school.
A year into the pandemic, the stresses of a society under attack continue to challenge each and every one of us on a daily basis. This virus has besieged us, and so we have taken measures to reinforce our defences — in this metaphor, remote work and learning have served to reinforce our gates. But there are cracks in the walls that existed long before this attack — breaches that we refused to acknowledge and repair. COVID-19 continues to disproportionately impact racialized and lower-income groups, and the divides created by remote learning have only served to exacerbate the systemic inequalities in our society. Until we can acknowledge these issues and attend to them, racialized students will continue to be burdened by the disparities of a system that has targeted them for so long.
-  Lisa M. Kelly et al, “Pandemic Schooling and the Politics of Safety” (2021) Queen’s Law Journal Working Paper.
Shane Sukerman is the Co-President of Level’s Campus Chapter at Queen’s University, where he is currently completing the final year of his JD. Shane holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree with high distinction in political science, history, and Canadian studies from the University of Toronto. As a student of politics and history, Shane is passionate about human rights and constitutional law, and is a staunch advocate for greater access to justice in Canada.