Voices in Education

We Can’t Go Back to Normal: Restorative Classrooms During COVID-19
In March of 2020, the world quickly came to a standstill as the reality of COVID-19 started to sink in. Some of the most popular social gatherings were suspended, postponed, or moved to virtual platforms: Broadway plays, professional and college sports, the Kentucky Derby, weddings, Juneteenth, Fourth of July, and the Olympics. These events as well as disruptions to employment, housing, healthcare, and travel impacted everyone’s daily routine.

COVID-19 is also changing the way schooling and education operate in the United States. Many important questions linger throughout the pandemic: Are schools going to open and stay open? Will teachers be safe while instructing in person? What happens to working parents who have to work outside of their homes while their kids learn virtually? What is the social-emotional impact on kids? Will masks and vaccines be mandatory? There are serious concerns about learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic as children have been sheltered in place at times without technological tools or support systems as schools made the pivot to distance learning.

There is no argument that the pandemic exacerbated existing inequities making it difficult to continue to be in denial about how our school system works from some and does not work for others. During the height of COVID-19, we launched the Black Parent Survey Project in California, seeking to learn more about how Black parents experience school discipline policies and procedures at their children’s schools. Participants could opt into a focus group interview where we learned about particular gains made during sheltering in place. Many Black parents saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with their children’s education processes and learned where the learning loss already existed in order to create and execute an action plan for learning gains at home. Some parents were able to listen and observe teachers instruct virtually. They learned how teachers talked to their child and others, what language was used to encourage or correct, and how teachers engaged students. Virtual learning gave them a direct access to their student’s classroom. Black parents also appreciated the reprieve from the constant e-mails and phone calls that focused on what was wrong with their children rather than what was going well. Meeting with teachers over Zoom was made easier. There was no more getting off work and driving to the school. Now with the click of a button they could talk to a teacher.

Some cannot imagine returning to anything close to “normal” in school settings. For example, one student said she prefers virtual learning because she does not have to worry about social pressures and daily interactions with classroom politics (CNN, 2021). The reality for many of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students is that they have no choice but to return to the classroom and learn under the uncertainties of COVID-19. As documented by scholars (Noguera 2003; Sojoyner, 2016; Winn, 2018), pre-COVID classrooms and schools struggled with educating students of color. So, what makes us think the school experience will be different now? Shifting our paradigm, here are some questions to consider as schools begin to open:
  • What are the possibilities for educators to re-imagine their classrooms to welcome back our students?
  • How can schools and classrooms transform into spaces that welcome, heal, celebrate and bring out the highest learning potential for students who have experienced the harms and devastations of COVID-19?
  • How do we move forward?
Restorative justice classrooms are needed more than ever. The COVID-19 rupture is the embodiment of restorative justice. To borrow from Fania Davis, restorative justice is participation in “a vast web of interrelatedness” and any rupture to this web will harm everyone. Restorative justice and transformative possibilities are also a potential path to repair this harm and create learning communities that are intellectually curious and always expanding, building on the work of institution builders and activists. For example, in our recent book, Restorative Justice in Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning Through the Disciplines, several classroom teachers share their experience in creating transformative classrooms.

Professor Alexis Patterson Williams and science educator Dr. Salina Gray both describe using restorative justice teaching and learning to understand the harms of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. They explain the fundamentals of science while connecting the lessons to events that their students understand and care about. They describe (W)holistic Science as a pedagogy that “use[s] strategies and tools to ground student’s content knowledge in critical awareness of structures and institutions” (p.107). A (W)holistic Science educator would ask their students how they have experienced COVID-19. What inequities exist with testing, deaths, and vaccines? What role does science play in fighting the virus? High school educators, Roxana Dueñas, Eddie Lopéz, and Jorge Lopéz embedded restorative justice in their Ethnic Studies classes in East Los Angeles. One of the projects is for their students to write letters to their past and future selves. These letters can also be to family members, friends, or even institutions to raise grievances or complaints. The writing and sharing process can be healing and help motivate students to move forward.

Educators must begin to re-imagine their classrooms as restorative justice classrooms. With restorative justice, students and their parents participate in a community where teachers and administrators value their histories, experiences, and stories. Recognizing that many have been harmed by COVID-19 (deaths, loss of jobs, health complications, evictions, isolation, dreams deferred, etc.), schools should encourage students to process and share their experiences: How are you feeling? How has COVID-19 impacted your learning? Then ask the students how they move forward as a community, and engage them by utilizing the best ways students learn during these uncertain times. The 2021 academic year and beyond will not be normal. In fact, as discussed above, for many students of color the “normal” did not work. Let’s transform and re-imagine how we learn and teach in these uncertain times and the future.


Winn, M. T., & Winn, L. T. (2021). Restorative Justice in Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning through the Disciplines. Race and Education Series. Harvard Education Press.

About the Author: Maisha T. Winn is the associate dean and Chancellor’s Leadership Professor in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis, where she cofounded and codirects the Transformative Justice in Education (TJE) Center. Lawrence “T.” Winn is an assistant professor of teaching in education in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis and the cofounder and executive director of the Transformative Justice in Education (TJE) Center. They are the authors of Restorative Justice in Education: Transforming Teaching and Learning Through the Disciplines (Harvard Education Press, 2021).