“Everywhere you turned,” Torres said, “there was someone else to give condolences to.”
So when the New York City school system asked her if she would send Eva back to the classroom in the fall, Torres, who works remotely, did not have to think twice. She could not fathom sending Eva to school, with the grief of losing her mother still so fresh.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed hard to reopen school buildings to ease the burden on working parents. And yet the families of 46 percent of students in the nation’s largest school district, made up overwhelmingly of children of color who come from low-income households, have chosen to keep their children home. Even some families in precarious financial situations are forgoing work to care for their children, because they are so fearful of the virus.
De Blasio touted his plan to keep students and teachers safe as “the global gold standard,” ordering inspections of all school buildings, supplying staff with masks and designing a testing regimen intended to keep close tabs on case numbers in schools. But the mayor had to push back the start date twice because schools were not yet ready to receive students, and teachers demanded more safety precautions, threatening to strike.
More than 450,000 students began remote learning last Monday, while about 90,000 preschoolers and special-education students whose families chose in-person instruction arrived at school campuses. Beginning next week, the remaining students — more than a half-million of them — will begin to arrive at school buildings for classes, with many attending only two to three days a week to allow for social distancing.
According to the most recent district figures, families of students of color chose remote learning at far higher rates than White families. More than half of the Asian students enrolled in remote learning. For Black and Hispanic students, the number is nearly 46 percent. For their White classmates, it is 33 percent. When their classmates begin arriving at school next week, these students will remain out of the classroom and in front of computers.
But remote learning proved disastrous for many in the spring, as schools were forced to devise learning plans on the fly and struggled to connect students with devices and high-speed Internet. Experts fear it could be another factor exacerbating an achievement gap that separates Black and Latino students from their White classmates. Nearly all large urban school districts, which are disproportionately Black and Latino, have gone remote.
Across the country, this story is repeating itself. A national Washington Post-Schar School Survey conducted in late July found that Black and Hispanic parents were far more hesitant to return their children to classrooms. Among White parents, 57 percent said they thought it would be safe to send their children back to classrooms. Among Black and Hispanic parents, 21 and 27 percent respectively said they thought in-person instruction was safe.
Pedro Dones, a middle-school math teacher at M.S. 363 in the Bronx, said many of his students live with relatives and have seen plenty of people around them fall ill. They worry that if they return to school in person they will bring the virus home.
“You have quite a few kids who are like … ‘I can’t have that on my head, if I came back and someone in my family got sick,’” Dones said.
Torres, an auditor who lives in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx and has organized a food pantry for needy school families, knows her daughter could be missing out if she does not return to her middle-school classroom. She said many working parents are sending their children back as an absolute last resort, only when they can find no one else to care for them. They sometimes confide in her that they feel like bad parents.
“They don’t feel confident that their child is going to be safe,” Torres said.
Tamara Rolle, 47, was among those who lined up outside Fort Schuyler Presbyterian Church, where Torres had organized food and grocery distribution. Rolle, a home health aide, is out on medical leave and decided to keep her daughter, 9-year-old Reina, home from her charter school, which is not subject to de Blasio’s reopening plans but has nonetheless opened its doors for in-person instruction. She is still unsure what she will do when her leave expires.
She worried about what would happen if Reina returned. What if Reina forgot about social distancing and hugged an infected classmate? What if she let her mask slip, as she sometimes does, and picked up the virus?
Many say that the diverging views about the safety of in-person schooling are another sign of the pandemic’s uneven impact on communities of color. The coronavirus has spread more easily and proved deadlier among Black and Latino communities, whose members are more likely to work in essential jobs that put them at risk of exposure. Long-standing injustices such as housing discrimination, and poor health-care access have also made them more likely to have underlying conditions.
These trends track among the virus’s youngest victims. Cases of serious illness and death among children are exceedingly rare, but Black, Latino and American Indian youths make up an outsize proportion of pediatric coronavirus fatalities, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Bronx, the city’s poorest borough, took the hardest hit: Nearly 4 out of every 100 residents contracted the virus, according to city data. Many students in the Bronx live with elderly relatives, and they have told their teachers they do not want to be responsible for bringing the virus home. In District 8, where Torres sends her daughter to school, 49 percent of students are learning remotely.
Asked why Black and Latino families might be opting out of face-to-face instruction at higher rates, the mayor acknowledged that it could be linked to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on these communities.
“The communities of color have been hit the hardest here, and have gone through hell,” de Blasio said during a news conference Monday. “It makes sense that there would be real concern and real caution.”
Torres, whose daughter Eva is set to start sixth grade this year at the Urban Institute of Mathematics in the Bronx, said she could not fathom sending Eva back — and understands why other families are fearful.
“Having walked that journey, I didn’t want to go down that road again,” she said.
And the schools she’s sent her children to have been on the losing end of the district, which once ranked among the most segregated in the country. An active member of the parent associations, Torres said they are often fundraising meager amounts to buy basics like pencils for students. Some parent associations at more affluent schools in the city have purchased tents to move class outdoors.
De Blasio has talked about his hope that opening schools will jump-start the economy, giving the city’s massive workforce — in which many have jobs that cannot be done remotely — a shot at returning. But many parents interviewed said they would rather stay home, endangering their financial prospects, to ensure their children are out of harm’s way. It also makes things difficult when most children who will return to classrooms will do so for just part of the week to allow for social distancing.
All of this translates to a massive dilemma for school districts like New York City, which in many cases are reopening school buildings for the very people who are most fearful of attending. Education advocates remain frustrated that the New York school district has not done a better job of ensuring that its neediest students, like those living in homeless shelters, have devices connected to the Internet.
Christine C. Quinn, who runs a nonprofit organization that is one of the city’s largest providers of services to homeless women and children, said the city wrongly assumed that her clients would want to send their children back to classrooms. It’s not the case.
“The fear is profound,” Quinn said. “People will, though, do everything they can not to let their children go to the classroom.”
Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal who is now running for Congress to represent a swath of the north Bronx, attributed the reluctance among Black and Latino families in his district to send children back to a lack of trust — and a process that left many parents feeling unheard.
It “wasn’t collaborative,” he said. “It was confrontational.”
Bowman said he is keeping his own children home because of the uncertainty. At the middle school he founded, and led up until the start of this year, about 60 out of the 260 students have signed up for in-person instruction.
With so many children staying home, he said, “that’s what I wished we would have been focused on — making remote instruction as good as it can possibly be.”