Editor’s Note: That’s right, it’s back-to-school week, and while there’s a sigh of relief from many, there are also sighs of worry. Is it safe? Can teachers handle these new burdens? Can the school suddenly shut down again? Writer Sydney Oppenheim looks at the ‘Back 2 School’ street art by Josh Wingerter that’s been popping up all over the city to address some of these fears.
Sitting on the corner of Mandeville and Burgundy St, like a fresh tattoo demanding to be noticed, lies a piece of street art in New Orleans. Created by artist Josh Wingerter, the stenciled student duo headed “Back 2 School” during the COVID-19 pandemic has started to pop up in multiple locations —from an electrical box on the corner of Royal St and Franklin Ave, to the plywood boarded up windows of Marigny Brasserie.
Providing sharp contrast from the mustard yellow exterior of Who Dat Coffee its stenciled upon, the children holding hands (like two of Darth Vader’s newest recruits with their Stormtrooper-style protective gas masks) in the mural’s foreground are layered in only black and white spray paint. From the thick, bold, horizontal lines on the boy’s shirt, to the shadowy layers of the girl’s dress, color is simplistic, yet important, in showing movement and detail. Each with only one foot flat and the other bent behind, the children are moving, more so running, towards or away from returning “back 2 school”, while trying to keep hold of each other and the objects in their hands. The girl grasps a messy stack of books, while the boy sports a lunchbox with the words “back 2 school” inked on it in red. Red, a symbol of passion and power, yet also a symbol of danger, warning, and corruption, emphasizes the uneven, messy, lettering in the phrase that switches between uppercase and lowercase.
Putting the ‘2’ in Wingerter’s “back 2 school” (pun totally intended), references how many students in New Orleans headed back to in-person classes in spring 2021 under the cities Phase 2: Safer at Home plan. Well, not all students packed their backpacks, masks, and snacks, and waited outside for their school bus to come every morning. In Orleans Parish, it was schools like Newman, Mount Carmel, and Sacred Heart (all private institutions) that reopened for in-person classes under Phase 2. Public middle schools and high schools in the city continued distanced and online learning.
In Wingerter’s stencil, the faces of the two students are depersonalized, obscured by the three large ovular air filters providing them with the safest mask technology as they return back to classes. So, the duo not only needs this safety measure (another summer 2021 surge has plagued New Orleans) but also has the access and resources to the best of the best protective gear. Even if some students/families who attend private schools in New Orleans are not able to afford a COVID-19 safety resource, private institutions may have the extra funding to supply them. Speaking as a student attending Tulane University —a private college located in Uptown New Orleans— a sanitizer dispenser is never more than a few steps away, disposable mask bins exist in buildings like Boggs for students to take, on campus students get tested at no cost twice a week, and, if contact traced in spring 2021, on campus students spent a week in the Hyatt Hotel with two-room serviced meals a day.
But what about students in public schools who may depend on school provided lunches? What about parents who may rely on the public-school system to teach and watch their children while they work? What about the children who may not have access to stable Wi-Fi networks or even devices that enable virtual learning platforms like Zoom? Don’t get me wrong, by no means does every New Orleans private school student come from a rich, Tesla-driving, country club type of family that burns dollar bills to light their cigars; the same way that by no means does every public school student come from a poor, struggling to provide three meals a day, while both parents work two jobs each, and have zero access to technology type of family.
For students throughout the city, whether it be in a classroom staring through plexiglass windows (check out the top floor of Frederick Douglass High School, Kipp Renaissance) and breathing through a mask, or in a bedroom learning and seeing through a screen, school looks different for every student in some way. Yet, the two dichotomous scenes of education/access present a stark contrast and continued reality. In New Orleans, returning to in-person classes for students in public versus private schools is as disproportionate and asymmetrical as the bright red “BAcK 2 SchooL” letters scribbled on the stenciled boy’s lunch box. The students navigating and trooping through the new storm of in-person school during the COVID-19 pandemic in New Orleans are those who had the stormtrooper-style gas masks to start.