Why Black Families Are Opting for Remote Learning
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the education gap will only get worse with mistrust.
By Bracey Harris
- As trends in Mississippi and beyond show, Black and Latino families are more likely than white families to choose remote learning over in-person instruction amid the pandemic.
- These families are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus — and they don’t trust schools to keep kids safe.
Yolanda Logan, the parent engagement coordinator for the Oxford School District in Mississippi, spent two weeks in July making home visits — some announced, some cold calls — to check in on the students educators had been most worried about when schools shut down in the spring. Some had test scores at the bottom at their class. Some belonged to families who had been struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic struck and devastated the economy.
Logan asked the students, and the adults in their lives, how they were holding up and what support they needed. She tried to gauge their comfort level with the district’s plan to reopen buildings this fall and address any concerns. Ready to answer questions about nuts-and-bolts issues, she had a checklist of important dates like registration deadlines and the first day of school at the ready. But as she went door to door, she met an unexpected wave of opposition.
Many Black and Latino families told her they were uncomfortable with sending their children back. When she was off the clock and brought up the issue with fellow parishioners of one the city’s most prominent Black churches, she received the same response: They wouldn’t budge, she said. “You [could] hear the intensity in their voices, hear their forcefulness.”
Oxford is one of many districts offering parents a choice of either in-person or remote learning for their children as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the country. In Oxford, one of the state’s most diverse districts, parents are making their choices along distinctly racial lines.
About 52 percent of the students who will stay at home for at least the first two months of the school year are Black, even though Black children account for only a third of the district’s enrollment.
While Latino and Asian parents were more likely to opt in for distance learning than white families, a greater percentage of Latino families enrolled their children for in-person instruction than Black families. White students, who make up just over half of the district’s student population, represent almost two-thirds of the students the district expects to see back on campus this fall.
At the end of the day, this is our child. We’ve been making decisions for him our whole life, regardless of what the district or the Department of Education says.
April Harriell, a Black mother in Oxford, Mississippi
Several parents of color participating in a Tennessee focus group convened by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that advocates for policies addressing inequities in education, said they were afraid to let their children return to school. A few parents indicated they would be willing to leave their jobs to stay at home with their children if need be, says Kenya Bradshaw, vice president of engagement for the nonprofit. Education officials who don’t consider how racial disparities may impact parental choices about remote learning run the risk of making ill-informed decisions and “alienating communities that have been adversely impacted by education in the past,” Bradshaw adds.
During Yolanda Logan’s home visits — where she was often joined by Oxford’s superintendent, Brian Harvey — Black and Latino parents explained their reasons for keeping their children at home. Some wondered whether their children would receive proper medical care from local health providers if they fell sick. One student said he needed remote schooling because the flexible schedule allowed him to continue working and helping to support his family.
For one high schooler, the fear of contracting the virus at school and spreading it to vulnerable relatives at home was particularly acute.
“I can’t go back, Mr. Harvey,” Logan recalled him telling the superintendent. “My mother has asthma.”
The feelings are often tied to systemic mistreatment over decades. In Shelby County, Tennessee, for example, testing found high levels of lead in several school buildings serving Memphis-area students last winter. This summer, less than a third of the families in the predominantly Black school district said they wanted schools to reopen for in-person instruction this fall.
Compare that to the affluent Memphis suburb of Collierville, where 60 percent of students are white. Eighty-one percent of families in the district said they wanted students to return for in-person instruction, albeit in a scaled-back way where students would attend for only part of the week to allow for social distancing.
As parents of color make decisions that feel safest for their families, there could be a steep academic cost, particularly if districts are unwilling, or financially unable, to improve online learning. McKinsey & Company projected that if students do not return to in-class schooling until January 2021, Black students may experience at least 10 months of learning loss, and Latino students nine months. If more families of color feel compelled to stay home, while more white families send their children to school, persistent achievement gaps could balloon further.
April Harriell, a Black mom in Oxford, said she’s noticed a racial divide among her friends over whether to send children back to school. When she and her husband decided to keep their second-grade son home for half of the fall semester, Harriell said she didn’t consciously think about how the pandemic was hurting Black Americans disproportionately. But she questioned whether the district’s logistical planning could ever provide real security for kids.
“At the end of the day, this is our child,” she said. “We’ve been making decisions for him our whole life, regardless of what the district or the Department of Education says.”
- Bracey Harris, OZY AuthorContact Bracey Harris