Feb 6, 2021 - Health

The racial divide in returning to the classroom

Illustration of a pencil broken in half on a divided background

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

As the debate over reopening America's classrooms heats up, one overlooked factor is the significant racial gap in whether parents are ready to send their children back to school.

Why it matters: Study after study shows that kids in remote schooling are suffering lifelong learning loss. But the concerns many Black and Latino parents express about returning their children to classrooms — concerns fueled by higher numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths and historically underfunded schools — need to be answered first.

By the numbers: In city after city, in survey after survey, parents of color have shown that they are much more worried about the safety of sending their kids back into classrooms than white parents.

  • In the most recent Axios/Ipsos coronavirus poll, 55% of Black parents and 40% of Latino parents reported they were extremely or very concerned about schools in their community reopening too quickly, compared to 25% of white parents.
  • Those attitudes are reflected in which students are returning to classrooms for planned or partial reopenings, with white children either returning or set to return at higher rates than Black and Latino children in Detroit, New York, Nashville and other places.

Details: Parents' decisions are grounded in part in the personal experiences of a pandemic that has had stark and disproportionate racial differences.

  • Black and Latino Americans are more likely to have contracted COVID-19, more likely to have been hospitalized for it, and more likely to know someone who has died from it.
  • While children have proven far less vulnerable to COVID-19 than adults, studies from last year indicated that children of color have been infected, been hospitalized and have died at much higher rates than white children.
  • According to a January survey from the Understanding America Study, more than 85% of Black parents agree or strongly agree that children are "at serious risk of health effects from COVID-19," compared to fewer than 50% of white parents.

Between the lines: Beyond COVID-19 concerns, experts say the racial divide can also be explained by mistrust by Black and Latino communities grounded in decades of institutional racism and a sense that schools have not effectively served their children.

  • By one estimate, a $23 billion gap — equivalent to $2,226 per student — exists in funding for predominantly white school districts versus predominantly nonwhite ones.
  • Parents who have firsthand experience of their school's financial struggles may have reason to be skeptical that expensive safety measures like new ventilation systems will be in place.
  • Black and Latino children are also more likely to have experienced punitive discipline at schools, which further contributes to a reluctance among parents to send them back.

What they're saying: “For generations, these public schools have failed us and prepared us for prison, and now it’s like they’re preparing us to pass away,” Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group in Tennessee, told the New York Times.

Yes, but: The longer children of color remain in remote education — which experts overwhelmingly view as inferior to in-person schooling — the further they risk falling behind, perhaps for their entire lives.

  • A November report from the academic assessment nonprofit NWEA found that Black and Latino students and those from high-poverty schools experienced declines in reading test scores this fall, while white students and those from wealthy schools did better than expected.
  • The true results are likely worse, as 1 in 4 students who typically take the NWEA's assessment didn't do so this year, possibly because they're among the estimated 3 million children — who are more likely to be Black or Latino — who have gone missing altogether from the education system during the pandemic.

The big picture: As it has in so many other ways, the pandemic has acted as an X-ray for America's struggling and unequal public school system, exposing cracks in trust and performance that have been forming for decades.

The bottom line: If we can't find a way to address that concern in a way that works for all parents, the inequalities baked into America's education system will only deepen, and those children who were already disadvantaged will suffer the most.

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