Feb 24, 2021 - Education

Why a return to the classroom isn’t a fix-all for schools

Schools, remote learning, virtual learning, CMS, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

CMS reopened middle and high schools this week, meaning that for the first time since last March students of every grade level are back in the classroom again. But, roughly 60,000 students — about 43% of the county’s total enrollment — are still at home in the full remote academy.

  • Most of those children are students of color.

By the numbers: Of fully remote students, 45% are Black, 25% are Hispanic, 15% are white, and 10.5% are Asian.

Why it matters: The partial reopening of schools isn’t going to cure the universe of systemic inequalities that the pandemic has exacerbated. Among them: Black and Latino families are more likely to have first-hand experience with death or hospitalization from COVID-19 than white families, making them less likely to want to send their kids back.

  • Meanwhile, chronic absenteeism and failing grades are at an all-time high among CMS students, especially students of color. And many of those students of color are still home in virtual learning.
CMS full remote academy enrollement by race
Data courtesy Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

These numbers here line up with national data that show Black and brown families are keeping their kids in remote learning at higher rates than other groups.

State of play: During the many, many heated school board meetings this year, advocates for a return to in-person learning often brought up marginalized communities as a reason to return. But what was often overlooked was that the significant racial gap in whether parents were ready to send their kids back to school, Axios’ Bryan Walsh wrote recently.

For these families, the risk of death and or financial loss due to COVID are more immediate concerns than academic setbacks.

  • In Mecklenburg County Black residents account for 42% of COVID community deaths, and Hispanic residents account for 20% of community deaths.
  • According to county data, Black and Hispanic workers make up a significant portion of the front line essential workforce, so working from home is less likely to be an option if there’s a COVID exposure in the family.

“There are many who have come on here and said they’re speaking for the down and outers, they’re speaking for the minority kids,” pastor Ray McKinnon said during a board meeting last month. “Well let me tell you, if people are infected with COVID and they are Black and Brown they are more likely to die than not … let’s stop with this game we’re playing and just say what you need to say. This is about you, and your inconvenience.”

Yes, but: The CDC says it’s safe to schools to reopen even before teachers receive vaccines. A recent Duke/Carolina study shows that coronavirus spread in schools is lower than in other places throughout the community.

What’s next: There is work being done both locally and statewide to craft a plan for students who’ve fallen behind during this pandemic school year. Additional options for more robust summer school programs are likely coming soon.

  • A bill making its way through the General Assembly now would require school districts to offer six weeks of learning recovery and enrichment after the school year ends.

The bottom line: The pandemic didn’t create the disparities facing marginalized students, it just made them worse.


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