Students and teachers in schools across New York City are participating in the Black Lives Matter At School Week of Action starting today. Citywide events include a virtual rally, Black superhero movie night, wellness workshop for Black educators, and a student summit on Saturday. Individual schools also have a range of activities planned, from a workshop about Black hair to discussions on what it means to be “Black in Kamala Harris’s America.”

The national ‘week of action’ — now in its fifth year — coincides with the start of Black History Month. But organizers said the goal is to go beyond the typical celebration of Civil Rights heroes, and to focus on concrete steps to make schools and society explicitly anti-racist. “It isn’t just about Black historical figures,” said parent Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, a BLM At School steering committee member. “It is about a way to engage in the world.”

The organizers said the seismic events of the last year — from the disparate effects of the pandemic on communities of color, to the uprisings after the killing of George Floyd in May, to the ongoing inequities in remote learning — add a layer of urgency to this week’s activities. But they said they are trying to balance those challenges with an emphasis on Black joy.

“BLM Week of Action is a time where youth celebrate and educate others on not just what it means to be Black, but what it means to be confident in our history,” said Keeba Polius, a senior at Harvest Collegiate High School near Union Square.

The week elevates a list of 13 principles that include supporting Black families and Black women and affirming queer and trans communities. There are also four demands: to reduce suspensions and expulsions in schools in favor of conflict resolution and restorative justice, hire more Black teachers, mandate Black history or ethnic studies in kindergarten through 12th grade, and hire more counselors instead of school security guards and police.

Students, parents and teachers said the demands of the national BLM At School organization resonate strongly in New York City, where schools are deeply segregated, racial disparities in suspensions persist, teachers are disproportionately white, and white authors continue to dominate curricula.

Tajh Sutton, another BLM At School steering committee member, said the pandemic has been a wakeup call.

“What COVID-19 really did was expose the inequities that some of us have been talking about the whole time,” Sutton said. “The entire pandemic we’ve heard ‘can’t wait to get back to normal,’ but normal for so many of our families and communities was outrageously inequitable."

Meanwhile, some teachers said they’re working to reframe and refresh lessons for Black History Month in this unique year. They encourage fellow educators to be careful not to approach the subject from “a deficit mindset” and suggest emphasizing triumphs despite trauma and the systemic nature of racism.

Aixa Rodriguez, a middle school ESL teacher and steering committee member, said remote learning creates new challenges, and opportunities to mark the moment. She said she’s encouraging students to replace their profile pictures online with those of “unsung heroes” they can then present to the class. One student chose a Black man, Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved blacksmith who planned a revolt near Richmond in 1800.

Maurice Blackmon, a teacher at Essex Street Academy in Manhattan, said he’s rebranded February as “Black History and Futures Month.” This year, students are researching ancient African civilizations to demonstrate that Black history preceded the history of Black people in the United States. “We know that much of American culture has been forged out of Black culture,” he said.

Organizers said they hope the lessons extend far beyond February. The national BLM At School organization dubbed it a “year of purpose” following the uprisings that began last spring. “We can’t just say Black Lives Matter for a week in February, because Black Lives have to matter at school all day, every day,” said Manhattan Country School kindergarten teacher and steering committee member Laleña Garcia.