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We already know how to prevent pandemics
Nancy Lin, left, with her kids, Miranda Gao, 12, and Stanley Gao, 13, in Philadelphia. She decided to maintain their remote education because of issues with a school building’s condition. (Rachel Wisniewski for The Washington Post)

It’s happening in well-to-do Pakistani households in the suburbs of Washington and among Chinese restaurant workers in Philadelphia. It’s happening among weary Filipino nurses in Queens, Hmong refugee families in Minneapolis and in Silicon Valley’s Asian American community.

As school buildings start to reopen, Asian and Asian American families are choosing to keep their children learning from home at disproportionately high rates. They say they are worried about elderly parents in cramped, multigenerational households, distrustful of promised safety measures and afraid their children will face racist harassment at school. On the flip side, some are pleased with online learning and see no reason to risk the health of their family.

In New York City, Asian American children make up the smallest share of children back in classrooms — just under 12 percent — even though they represent 18 percent of all students. In Tennessee, less than half of Asian families enrolled in Metro Nashville Public Schools opted for in-person learning, compared with nearly two-thirds of White children.

In Chicago, two-thirds of White students chose in-person learning, while just a third of Asian, Black and Latino students decided to head back. And in Fairfax County Public Schools, the largest district in Virginia, just over 30 percent of Asian families selected face-to-face instruction this spring, by far the smallest return rate reported among any racial group.

The academic consequences could be devastating, warned Mya Baker of education nonprofit TNTP, which works with school districts across the country to boost achievement among low-income and minority students. This is especially true in communities of immigrant and refugee Asian families, she said, who are often overlooked due to the pervasiveness of the “model minority myth.”

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In reality, many Asian communities face the same kinds of challenges that hold back Black and Latino students, including poverty, language barriers and under-resourced schools. In New York City, more than 1 in 5 Asians live in poverty, the second highest of any racial or ethnic group, according to city data.

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 30 percent of Asians in the United States live in intergenerational households, almost double the percentage of White households. And Asian Americans represent the most economically divided racial group in the nation, with the success of the affluent obscuring the plight of the least fortunate.

“Everyone makes assumptions that, ‘Oh, Asian kids are doing better with virtual learning,’ ” Baker said. “The reality is we’re talking about families living in multigenerational households, families where English is not spoken at home, so we’re increasing barriers for those students who are already not performing well.”

Baker said that is why it is essential for schools to work doubly hard to reach Asian families — about a third of Asians in the United States have limited English proficiency — and to reassure them that their children will not be targeted.

In Virginia and Maryland, Asian American students seem to be suffering smaller academic losses than their Black and Latino classmates. But in other places, like Minneapolis, where the Southeast Asian refugee community faces steep rates of poverty, students appear to be losing ground as fast or even faster than other students of color. In fall 2019, about 7 percent of grades given to Asian students were F’s. That percentage more than quadrupled — to 30 percent — in the fall of 2020, according to the Sahan Journal, which reports on Minneasota’s immigrant communities.

Anxiety about being targeted

Many Asian Americans have been anxious of being targeted after President Donald Trump used racist language to describe the coronavirus. Critics warned his repeated use of phrases like “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” could escalate attacks on Asian Americans, who reported rising instances of harassment. Now, a spate of high-profile attacks on Asian Americans has many in the community on edge.

In New York City, a Filipino man was slashed with a box cutter on the subway, an Asian woman was punched in the face on a subway platform, and another woman was shoved to the ground in Flushing, a predominantly Asian community in Queens. In Los Angeles, a man at a bus stop was beaten with his own cane, and a Thai grandfather died after being pushed to the ground in San Francisco. It’s unclear whether race motivated all the crimes, but the incidents, combined with increasing reports of harassment and bullying, have heightened anxiety in many communities.

The ripple effects among families weighing whether to send their children back are far-reaching.

New York City is reopening its schools for working families. But many students of color are staying home.

In New York City, Liz OuYang, a Columbia University adjunct professor and civil rights attorney who specializes in combating hate crimes, said some Asian American families are fearful about setting foot outside their homes.

OuYang, who directs an annual hate crime prevention art project for the nonprofit OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates, said parents and kids have shared stories of strangers harassing them, yelling at them to “speak English” or “go back to your home country.”

It has made some families fearful of sending their children on solo commutes to school. So instead, they keep them home, learning remotely.

In New York City’s Chinatown, a school principal said one mother moved her child from in-person learning to remote learning after she and her child were harassed on the subway. Some families are so worried about leaving their apartments that the school has shelled out funds to ship or hand-deliver supplies and packets to them.

Parents have relayed the same fears in Philadelphia. Anna Perng, co-founder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, said parents reported their children were being harassed on city buses. Then, over the summer, police arrested a homeless woman for attacking a pregnant woman in Chinatown, calling her a slur and punching her in the face.

That sent the anxiety in Philadelphia’s Asian American communities into overdrive, Perng said, and now threatens to deprive them of access to school-provided resources they badly need.

“Families have told me they’re afraid to go to the school district to get things like worksheets, learning supplies and the free meals the school district has been handing out since the pandemic started,” Perng said.

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Lisa Liu, whose two children attend Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, said she saw little reason to send them back to classrooms when virtual learning seemed to be working well for them. But fear that they would face harassment also played into her decision.

“Maybe if they go back, the other kids will say, ‘You’re the reason we didn’t go to school for a year,’ ” Liu said. “I don’t want my kids to experience hatred.”

Many in medical fields

But it is not just harassment that families worry about. Asian Americans are overrepresented in medical fields, making up 6 percent of the population but 18 percent of the nation’s doctors and 10 percent of its nurse practitioners. It means they are more likely to have had firsthand experience with the virus.

Suzanne Lirazan, a 30-year-old nurse from the Philippines who lives in Queens, has seen the devastation of the pandemic firsthand. She works as a private nurse, and in April the patient she was caring for fell ill after contracting the coronavirus. She was at his bedside as he took his final breaths. Then she and the rest of the household fell ill. She was unable to see her 9-year-old son, Gabriel De La Cruz, for an entire month as she recovered and quarantined.

Lirazan worries her son could bring home the virus from school, a prospect that would not only be dangerous for her, but for her patients, too.

“It’s the fear of him getting sick, and transmission-wise, I don’t want to get sick and transmit it with my patients,” Lirazan said. “My son, he’s very social, he likes to study in school. But I just can’t bring myself to bring him there.”

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Lirazan said that sentiment is common in Filipino communities in New York and New Jersey, where many work in health-care in jobs that put them in close contact with patients.

Preexisting conditions

For Nancy Lin, a Philadelphia mother of two who was laid off from her restaurant job when the pandemic struck, the decision to keep her children remote was driven by something else: the school building. According to her dispatches with other parents over the messaging app WeChat, many other Chinese families are making the same decision.

They had complaints about the condition of the school even before the pandemic, of mold in the basement, that bathrooms were dirty, and that heating and cooling systems were not in working order. They are the same factors that are keeping other families of color — and teachers — out of school buildings.

Their concerns are not unfounded. An investigative series in 2017 by the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News found widespread issues with asbestos and paint laced with lead. When the teachers union pushed the school system to delay the start date of in-person classes, its leader cited the district’s “absolutely abysmal track record when it comes to addressing health and safety.”

At Hmong International Academy in Minneapolis, Principal Jamil Payton said only a third of students in prekindergarten through fifth grade have come back to the school building since they reopened last month. The school serves a mix of students from the city’s refugee communities — Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian and Somali students. There were fewer than 100 students in the building the last week of February, a group whose demographics roughly matched the school’s.

The Hmong community has been hard-hit by the coronavirus. In June, Marny Xiong, a Hmong woman who chaired of the St. Paul Board of Education, succumbed to the virus at the age of 31, devastating the Hmong community. Xiong had worked as an administrator at Hmong International Academy and her loss was felt deeply.

“We were hit like a ton of bricks by the passing of this staff member who was so beloved in our building and our community,” Payton said. He believes it is contributing to the reluctance of Hmong families to send their children back to school buildings.

Swapping information

The decision for almost any family to send their children back to school can be wrenching, as they attempt to balance the benefits of sending their children back to school with the risks — all while the death toll from the pandemic mounts. So many are relying on parents from their own communities, swapping information in group chats to make decisions.

Mehvish Ali, who is Pakistani American, had a lot to weigh when trying to decide whether to send her two sons back to school in Loudoun County, a Northern Virginia suburb. Her oldest son, a seventh-grader, was eager to get back to school to see his friends. But he also has a medical condition that makes him more susceptible to the virus.

She is close with her neighbors, most of whom are Indian American, and her children are friends with their children. The group chat had become a key source of support and information during the pandemic.

On WhatsApp, the consensus was clear.

“Everybody in the neighborhood that I know of said they were doing distance learning,” Ali said. It made the decision easier for her and for her son, who learned his friends would also be staying home from school.

When it came time for Filipino American Julius Paras to decide whether to send his child back to school outside San Jose, he and his wife, who is Chinese American, decided to convene a Zoom meeting with relatives nearby. Many of them had come together as a pandemic pod, allowing the parents to split child-care duties and the cousins to continue to see each other. They realized sending their children back to classrooms could shatter their support system and possibly endanger his in-laws, who they visit for socially distanced picnics in the elderly couple’s driveway.

“We want our children to grow up not just with their aunts and uncles but also with their grandparents. It’s just this affinity for multigenerational living that comes from my Filipino culture and from my wife’s Chinese culture,” Paras said. “When we thought about how to prioritize all of this, it came down to, ‘Who is our family? How do we look out for them?’ And we decided home is what’s safest.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly implied that an attack on a Thai grandfather occurred in Los Angeles. It happened in San Francisco. It also incorrectly stated where refugee students at the Hmong International Academy in Minneapolis came from. They are Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian and Somali.