The Education Trust and E4E recently convened a small group of educators of color from across the country to hear about their experiences during the sudden shift to distance learning. “It’s been incredibly difficult, not just logistically but emotionally,” explained Sasha, a Latina teacher in Los Angeles. “A lot of my peers and I have been struggling. The mental toll and uncertainty was shell-shocking. We felt blindsided. We found out on a Tuesday in March we might be closed for two weeks, then that Friday was the last day we saw each other possibly until August.”

These educators of color have led classrooms in the face of adversity as well as the structural inequities that continue to harm their students. As schools decide when and how to reopen, Black and Latino educators are even more passionate about ensuring that the policies created during this key juncture in our nation’s history serve their communities better. “Students’ families have struggled as they became infected and kids are struggling as a result. [In Chicago] the impact began with Black community, then Latino. Families have less information, and people are working in high-risk situations like cleaning, working in convenience stores, etc. It’s sad to see that it’s always minorities most affected by these kinds of things,” said Alejandra, a Latina paraprofessional in Chicago.

This narrative isn’t new. Too often, it’s taken horrible moments like a global pandemic and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to reckon with the systemic racism and racial inequities in this country. Usually, after the urgency of the moment has passed and status quo is restored, state and district leaders stop valuing the experiences and insights of people of color. To meet this current inflection point with sustainable change, decision-makers must ensure that there are more educators of color like the ones we interviewed who can lead classrooms and contribute to policy and planning decisions as schools open their doors. “Policymakers should bring teachers to the table, especially teachers of color, to help guide decisions about schools next year,” said Anthony, a Latino teacher in New Brighton, MN.

As two Black education policy leaders who have dedicated our careers to ensuring that students of color and students from low-income backgrounds receive the equitable and quality education they deserve, we take this work personally. One of us, a Black woman, grew up in Minneapolis just five blocks from where George Floyd was murdered by those sworn to serve and protect in a city plagued by racial and economic disparities across all sectors of society, especially education. The other, a Black man from a single parent household in Atlanta, was subjected to various forms of racism at schools that lacked Black educators to provide safe spaces to reflect on and process the pain caused by those experiences.

Our own experiences, and the perspectives shared by the educators of color we interviewed, illuminate the real and obvious need for educators of color to play an active role in shaping school experiences for all students. “When we compare our students’ spring and fall assessments, the fall assessment results are always lower — kids don’t have books to read and few do things during the summer. I think that will be even more true this year,” says Alejandra.

It is no secret, however, that educators of color have been lacking in numbers and influence for decades in our country’s public schools. States and districts must focus on the racial and ethnic diversity of their teacher workforces as they rethink schools in response to COVID-19 and continue addressing systemic racism and racial inequities. One teacher reported that his school’s student body is 30% students of color, but only has three Black teachers and four Latino teachers.

At a minimum, states and districts must ensure that they protect the positions of current teachers of color who are vulnerable to cuts and already being disproportionately impacted by the recession. They must also remain committed to supporting promising efforts to recruit and maintain a racially diverse workforce, even in the face of layoffs and budget cuts. But they can’t stop there: Districts must ensure they are amplifying the leadership of teachers of color and integrating their unique perspectives into policy.

The Education Trust and E4E remain committed to centering the voices of educators of color in policy discussions at the federal, state, and local level. In 2019, E4E formed the Reimagine, Represent coalition, which comprises educators, leaders, and allies who have joined forces to make a very clear and public statement: Increasing diversity in our teaching workforce cannot wait. These coalitions will help school leaders and other educators in developing safe learning spaces for all students to process the fallout from COVID-19 related closures and the racial injustices that continue to affect the country. The Education Trust, in partnership with our state offices and organizations like E4E, will work to convene teachers of color and develop advocacy coalitions in a number of states that will influence state and local policy decisions about how to reopen schools. We hope that these efforts will lead all states to change their practices to provide opportunities for their educators of color to co-construct schools and learning environments for their students.

Without decisive action to include the voices and leadership of educators of color in reopening schools this fall, educators of color will continue to leave the profession at disproportionate rates. And if state and district leaders believe White teachers alone can lead the work in schools to address systemic racism and racial inequities, they’re not listening to the countless White leaders who have already leaned on their Black colleagues over the past month of national reflection for support with leading in anti-racist ways or even with how to facilitate conversations about racism and privilege. “We already have the least equitable K-12 systems in the country, and very few leaders of color at the top of these systems. Our voices need to be at the table to fix these issues,” says Arthur, a teacher in Brooklyn, New York.

Bottom line: We need more educators of color leading our classrooms and contributing to decisions about reopening schools this fall if our country is to ever make real progress toward education equity.

To learn more or join our coalition on diversifying the teaching workforce, click here.

To read more research from Ed Trust about conditions affecting the retention of educators of color, sign up here.