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Diversity, Equity, School Community

Reimagining Student Success in the Aftermath of the Pandemic

Centring anti-racism and equity education

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted life across the globe in every sector of society. As we move toward the third year of the pandemic, educators are examining the impact on student learning, educational outcomes, and well-being. Educators over the past two years have been adjusting practice and reflecting on what lies ahead for education and schooling in a “post-pandemic” world. We all acknowledge that it might be premature to think of “post-pandemic,” as students, parents, educators, policymakers and communities are still experiencing effects of the pandemic.

The pandemic continues to impact Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities in devastating ways, and has exacerbated structural inequities that these communities experience. Research has shown that the pandemic has impacted student learning in significant ways, with many students falling behind, experiencing challenges with persistent and ongoing virtual learning and the safety concerns with in-person learning, and suffering diminished mental health and well-being. There have been challenges for parents: supporting students with online learning, work and life balance, and child care issues, among others. Educators have voiced concerns about ongoing safety measures as many return to in-person learning. The impact and consequences of the pandemic have been experienced differently by members of society depending on status, resources, type of work, racialization, ability, and other aspects of identity. Essential and frontline workers have borne the brunt of the impact and many are experiencing burnout, anxiety, and negative impact on their well-being. As Reyes (2020) argues, our different social identities and the social groups we belong to determine our inclusion within society and, by extension, our vulnerability to epidemics.

As educators and policymakers reimagine education and schooling in a post-pandemic era, there is a growing awareness that the experiences of the pandemic and the lessons learned should serve as motivation for radical new and alternative approaches to teaching, learning, and leading. Calls to “get back to normal” by some ignore challenges and structural inequities across all sectors of society that have been laid bare and exacerbated by the pandemic.

Students, educators, and community members all want teaching and learning to return in fulsome ways; however, those from global majority communities say “getting back to normal” must not include returning to oppressive policies and practices that prevent racialized students from achieving positive educational outcomes. The pandemic widened gaps that already existed for Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. Students and communities are demanding new approaches and policies that centre their lived experiences and will no longer tolerate educational policies and practices that oppress them and negatively impact their futures. The pandemic has magnified historic systemic failures affecting Black students, families, and communities, causing increased racial trauma, issues of mental health and well-being for educators and students, and the erosion of trust in schools and institutions (Horsford et al., 2021). As a result, many children and youth have experienced disengagement, chronic attendance problems, declines in academic achievement, and decreased credit attainment during the pandemic, with the impact far deeper for those already at risk (Whitley et al., 2021). “The pandemic has not only added to the social and educational inequities among young people, it has exacerbated the racial injustice with which racialized and Indigenous youth must contend” (James, 2020, p.1), and this reality cannot be overlooked.

Against this backdrop, educators and policymakers are called on to reimagine education and schooling, to name and challenge the ways in which students are marginalized, and to question practices, policies, and “norms” of a pre-pandemic era that must not return. The lessons of the pandemic must be learned and there must not be a return to business as usual. Instead, those most impacted by the pandemic are calling for inequities to be acknowledged and a commitment made to lasting systemic change.

To this end, critical educators see the pandemic as an opportunity not only to question oppressive educational policies and practices, but to take action and offer new and alternative approaches. One key issue that this article examines is the notion of student success. Measures of student success have traditionally focused on such areas as grades, credit accumulation, engagement in the school environments, and so on. What the pandemic (as well as student and community advocates) has highlighted is that student success is also about well-being, having a sense of belonging, and the ability to survive and thrive academically, emotionally, and spiritually. In this article I argue for rethinking student success through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens. To do so means naming systems of oppression and the ways coloniality and colonization continue to be perpetuated in educational practices, policies, and the framing of notions such as student success.

Rethinking student success through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens

Student success has been a long-standing goal of educators. Nonetheless, the term carries a variety of meanings within education, though it has commonly been identified with various forms of measurable student outcomes. Schools in their school success plans often define and contextualize student success to set organizational goals. In broad terms, student success has been understood in terms of outcomes such as academic achievement, graduation rates, persistence, increase in self-efficacy, increase in engagement, and initiative (Weatherton & Schussler, 2021). Research shows that there are differences in how teachers and students understand student success. Racialized students, for example, tend to define success for themselves, which often aligns with what matters to them and the kinds of supports they need for their educational advancement (Oh & Kim, 2016). Weatherton and Schussier (2021) argue that current discourse around the meaning of student success is maintained in part by social hierarchies that can be examined through the lens of hegemony and critical race theory, and which often hinder the success of certain student populations who may not define success in the same way.

Many have argued that markers of student success have been created to serve a predominantly white student population and do not sufficiently reflect or meet the needs of a diverse student population. Students from global majority communities are no longer willing to be labelled as “unsuccessful,” “disadvantaged,” “at-risk,” and other markers of deficit in school while their educational, mental health, and well-being needs are not met, and racism and other forms of oppression that impact their educational outcomes persist. For example, throughout the pandemic students from low-resourced families could not participate effectively in the shift to online learning, as some did not have adequate access to the internet and computers. The failure of the system to provide adequate resources for students must not be laid at the feet of vulnerable students and used to render them as unsuccessful. Instead, questions must be asked about what success means for students from global majority communities, and what policies and practices need to be put in place in order for them to survive and thrive. Resiliency has emerged in the discourse when discussing success of students, and in particular students from Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. While resilience is a worthy endeavour, students should not be called on to be resilient in the face of ongoing oppression. Oppressive systems, policies, and practices must change, instead of calling on some students to be more resilient.

Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education, which identifies structural inequities and practices grounded in coloniality and the resulting gaps in student outcomes, provides a framework for advancing equity that challenges all forms of oppression. This should be seen as foundational to student success.

Reimagining student success grounded in anti-oppressive and decolonizing approaches must prioritize the following elements:

  • adopting a student-centred approach to teaching that includes the lived experiences and voices of students in defining school success goals
  • embedding anti-oppressive and decolonizing education in everyday practice in teaching, learning, and leading
  • putting in place supports for students’ social, mental, and economic well-being
  • developing and nurturing connections to community.

These suggestions do not operate in an isolated linear fashion, but overlap and are interconnected.

Adopt a student-centred approach

Research shows that students often have different notions of what success means. In addition to grades, students want to feel that they are being heard. As well, students from global majority communities see success as being able to thrive academically and without spirit injury – not having to endure racism and other forms of exclusion that stand in the way of their academic success and well-being. In Canada, we have read story after story of Black students experiencing anti-Black racism in schools and Indigenous students experiencing anti-Indigenous racism in schools. In response to community and parental advocacy, some school boards have put policies in place to address anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism, but there is more work to be done.

Student-centred approaches are not new; however a student-centred approach grounded in anti-oppressive and decolonizing education requires educators to examine their relationships with students through the lens of power, whiteness, white supremacy, ways that systemic forms of oppression can be manifested in those relationships, and ways in which practices grounded in colonial thinking and mindset define markers of success. Wells and Cordova-Cobo (2021) argue that it is impossible for educators to be student-centred, to engage in a holistic education focused on students’ social and emotional needs, without also being anti-racist. This approach means that success cannot be seen within paradigms of meritocracy, but instead through supports they need, acknowledging the impact of racism and other forms of oppression on their educational experiences. For educators in classrooms, this might mean examining assessment practices, pedagogical approaches, and curriculum context. For administrators this might mean examining discipline policies that penalize students instead of learning about what else might be happening in students’ lives.

Embed anti-oppressive and decolonizing education in everyday practice

Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education cannot be treated as an add-on to teachers’ and school leaders’ everyday work, but must instead be embedded in everyday practice. It must become the norm. Students must experience curriculum, pedagogy, and school practices that reflect their lived experiences, address their needs holistically, and identify forms of oppression in all aspects of teaching, learning, and leading that stand in the way of their progress. Students’ school experiences must be wholesome and fulfilling, both academically and spiritually. Seeing the impact of COVID-19 on racialized students, educators must commit to this work and be provided ongoing support to make it a reality, not just theory. This will require educators to examine activities that they engage in on a daily basis, including morning greetings, conversations with students in the hallways, meetings with families, resources that are purchased, and knowledge used to frame decision-making. For example, examining the influence of Eurocentric knowledge in relationship to students from global majority communities; and asking questions about the use of deficit narratives to construct students’ experiences and success or lack thereof. Anti-oppressive and decolonizing education also requires the examination of self – for educators to examine their positionality and how this intersects with that of students; and to look for the tensions in the relationship and include student voice and experience as they work through these tensions. Educators must also be committed to ongoing learning, unlearning, and relearning. This is critical for anti-oppressive and decolonizing work to be sustained and create the lasting change needed.

Support students’ social, mental, and economic well-being

Students’ mental health and well-being has been a consistent conversation throughout the pandemic. For racialized students who are already experiencing racial violence and trauma in schools, the impact has been devastating. In addition to the already heightened challenges on their mental health and well-being, many students from low-resource families and communities work to earn extra family income, and thus shoulder an added layer of stress. These issues, illuminated and exacerbated during the pandemic, must now form part of the discourse, policy and practice as we reconceptualize student success. The impact of these experiences should not be constructed as deficits when examining student success, but instead as a result of embedded structural inequities. I am suggesting here that when discussing student success, questions must be asked about students’ economic well-being and how that impacts their educational outcomes. Students’ economic lives are not separate from their educational lives; they are intertwined. New conceptualizations of success must include providing supports for students to overcome these challenges. These should be envisioned as the “new normal” and markers of success in a “post-pandemic” world.

Develop and nurture connections to community

As we begin to rethink education, schooling, and what student success means through an anti-oppressive and decolonizing lens, relationships with communities must be seen as central to student success. Connection with their community deepens educators’ understanding of students in holistic ways and fosters greater understanding of their needs. This also means building into curriculum and pedagogy knowledge that students bring from their communities, what Gonzalez et al. (2005) refer to as Funds of Knowledge. They suggest that families, especially those who are working class, can be characterized by the practices they have developed and the knowledge they have produced and acquired in the living of their lives. In other words, how is community knowledge part of the conversation about success? How are the formal and informal activities that students engage in at the community level taken into account when discussing student success? Decolonizing approaches to education require educators to examine and disrupt notions about certain communities constructed and maintained through colonized frames, that disregard local knowledge as valued and valuable (Lopez, 2021). This knowledge is valuable to schools in supporting students’ learning and bringing about positive educational outcomes. We also need to support students to engage in cultural border crossing – drawing on knowledge from their own experiences, and getting to know students who are different from themselves – and to see other cultures through an affirming lens. Building positive relationships with community is a cornerstone of anti-oppressive and decolonizing education.

Education in a “post-pandemic” era calls for radical action. Student success can no longer be conceptualized only in terms of measurable outcomes and indicators such as graduation rates and marks. While it is important that students graduate and move to the next level, other markers of student success must be seen as equally important – such as how well students are thriving in teaching and learning spaces free from oppression and marginalization. The relationship between students, community, and school, should become central to student success policies and practice. The moment we are currently in provides educators with a great opportunity to build deep, lasting, and respectful relationships with communities, examine ways that COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated structural inequities, and construct alternative approaches and practices. This will prepare students to be successful in a fast-changing and diverse world.

Photo: Adobe Stock

First published in Education Canada, March 2022

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Horsford, S. D. et al. (2021). Black education in the wake of COVID-19 & systemic racism: Toward a theory of change and action. Black Education Research Collective, Teachers College, Columbia University.

González, N., Moll, L., Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2005). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Lawrence Erlbaum.

James, C. (2021). Racial inequity, COVID-19 and the education of Black and other marginalized students. In F. Henry & C. James (Eds.) Impacts of COVID-19 in Racialized Communities (36–44). Royal Society of Canada.

Lopez, A. E. (2021). Decolonizing educational leadership: Exploring alternative approaches to leading schools. Palgrave Macmillan.

Oh, C. J., & Kim, N. Y. (2016). “Success is relative”: Comparative social class and ethnic effects in an academic paradox. Sociological Perspectives, 59(2), 270–295.

Osmond-Johnson, P., Lopez, A. E., & Button, J. (2020, November 20). Centring equity in an era of COVID-19: A new twist on an existing challenge. Education Canada.

Reyes, N. V. (2020). The disproportional impact of COVID-19 on African Americans. Health and Human Rights, 22(2) 299–307.

Weatherton, M., & Schussler, E. E. (2021). Success for all? A call to re-examine how student success is defined in higher education. CBE – life sciences education, 20(1), es3.

Wells, A. S., & Cordova-Cobo, D. (2021). The post-pandemic pathway to anti-racist education: Building a coalition across progressive, multicultural, culturally responsive, and ethnic studies advocates. The Century Foundation.

Whitley, J., Beauchamp, M. H., & Brown C. (2021). The impact of COVID-19 on the learning and achievement of vulnerable Canadian children and youth. FACETS 6(1), 1693–1713.

Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Ann Lopez

Professor, Teaching Stream, Ontario Institiute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

Dr. Ann Lopez is Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Department of Leadership, Higher and Adult Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. Her research examines school leadership across contexts. She is a former secondary classroom teacher and school administrator.

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