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Some families of color remain wary of returning to classrooms as new school year begins

Greg and Sharon Tucker of Silver Spring, Md., say their son James did not want to return to in-person school this year. A study shows greater uncertainty among families of color about the health risks of in-person school during the pandemic. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

When Sharon Tucker decided to keep her son in virtual learning last year, she thought about the pandemic’s heavy toll on families of color. But as the parent of a Black child, she also listened closely when her son began to talk about school discipline.

The then-7-year-old worried about what would happen if his mask slipped down. Or if he forgot other new rules. He believed he had been unfairly punished once before at school. He didn’t want trouble again.

“It’s just one of the realities families of color have,” said Tucker, of Silver Spring, Md. “He wanted to stay remote.”

As a new school year begins — with the delta variant of the coronavirus on the rise and debates flaring over masks and vaccines — research shows wariness about in-person classes has not completely faded among Black and Hispanic families.

Recent surveys have found that while most parents nationally plan to send their children back into classrooms for 2021-2022, there is far greater hesitancy among families of color. It is less than in the spring, but still significant.

Just 6 percent of White parents across the country were uncertain about or against sending their children back into school buildings, compared to 18 percent of Black parents, 17 percent of Hispanic parents and 12 percent of Asian parents, according to an August report by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

“Unquestionably, the gap is there,” said Heather Schwartz, the report’s co-author.

Hopes and fears as schools open their doors for new year

The results may partly reflect the complex moment that marks the reopening of schools this year: The highly contagious delta variant is driving a surge in cases and safety concerns, but after almost 18 months of the pandemic, many families also are desperate to get students back in school.

Some 89 percent of parents overall said their children would return to classes in person, up from 84 percent in May, the Rand report found.

Still, health risks remain an overriding concern, particularly for families of color, the survey showed. Since the pandemic began, Black and Hispanic families have become ill and died at far greater rates than their White counterparts, according to federal data.

At the same time, the pandemic has cast new light on racial inequities in education. Last year, some families like the Tuckers based their decisions to keep their children learning remotely partly on difficult experiences in school buildings.

For Black and Latino families, “schools are often not the most nurturing places and are not necessarily the safest places,” said L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, an associate professor in the sociology of education program at New York University.

Virtual learning allowed parents to manage school experiences from afar, shielding kids from “the kind of constant surveillance that happens to Black children in schools,” Lewis-McCoy said. As cases climb, worries about infection may again combine with long-standing misgivings, for a “compounding effect,” he said. “There is a built-up distrust.”

Black and Latino students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. They are referred to police in greater percentages. They are more likely to face low expectations — and less likely to be placed in advanced courses and gifted programs.

In Los Angeles, the pandemic made disparities impossible to ignore for many Black parents in the nation’s second-largest school system, with some getting a much closer look at their children’s school experiences, according to a report by the nonprofit parents advocacy group Speak Up.

In focus groups, Black parents “described a system that is indifferent and even hostile to them and their children, as well as their reluctance to send their children back to in-person learning because they feel their children will be better off not going back to a campus where they do not feel welcome,” the report said.

More students of color expected to return for in-person classes in the fall but reluctance lingers, research suggests

Brittania Hurst, whose son is in fourth grade in the Los Angeles Unified School District, saw visible improvement during virtual learning last year — with greater class participation and willingness to work.

Racial discrimination had previously marred her son’s school experience, she said: Before the pandemic, she said she watched one day as children lined up outdoors and her son was unfairly blamed for hitting a girl. The teacher apologized after Hurst pointed it out, but to her mind: “The aggressor is automatically presumed to be a Black boy, no matter what.”

Hurst quit her job as a 911 dispatcher to help her son keep up during distance learning. For a while she was undecided about the fall. Though she is now sending him in person, she said she stands ready to switch her son into virtual mode if anything goes awry.

Michelle Tillett, another parent of color in Los Angeles, said the pandemic showed her what was possible for her 8-year-old daughter’s learning — something she said she never fully understood as a Black single mother living in an underserved community.

Communications, support and relationships were better during last year’s virtual learning, she said. But this year she ultimately opted for in-person learning because it was the only way her daughter could remain in a gifted program.

She remains worried, especially with the spread of the delta variant, which left Tillett hospitalized over the summer. Though her child will wear a highly secure mask, she said, “I’m still nervous and scared.”

D.C. public schools are back in person with some exceptions, but parents and guardians are debating whether it’s safe as the pandemic continues. (Video: Hadley Green/The Washington Post)

The Rand research showed that about two-thirds of Black, Hispanic and Asian parents nationally needed masking, teacher vaccinations, regular testing and most of all classroom ventilation to feel their youngest school-age child would be safe learning in person.

White parents were much less worried, with just 32 percent needing masking requirements and 35 percent citing testing.

This year, the picture is more complicated because some families don’t have the option of virtual learning: Their school system or state is prohibiting it. Adding to that, mask requirements and vaccine mandates vary from place to place; some parents who feel worried about safety in one place may not feel the same way in another.

“Parents may be hesitant but have no remote choice,” said Anna Rosefsky Saavedra, who co-led research on the issue at the University of Southern California.

The USC research showed the racial-ethnic gap persisted in August, with 23 percent of Black parents and 20 percent of Hispanic parents saying they were are unsure about in-person school or not planning on it, compared with 15 percent of White parents.

“Some people may opt out [of in-person school] because they just feel like, ‘My child will do better at home where they’re not subjected to . . . the racial profiling and the harsh discipline,’ ” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the national office of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization.

School discipline enters new realm with online learning

Even during remote learning last year, some discipline was severe.

A 9-year-old Black student in Louisiana was recommended for expulsion after a teacher noticed a BB gun in his bedroom as he was taking a test. A 12-year-old African American student in Colorado who played with a “Zombie Hunter” toy gun during a virtual art class was reported to law enforcement and suspended for five days.

Disciplinary actions were also taken against students last year for dress code violations, missed Zoom classes and homework lapses, said Cara McClellan, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The punishments “continued to be the response at a time when students more than ever needed support and services instead of overly harsh discipline,” she said.

In Washington area, African American students suspended and expelled two to five times as often as whites

But the school experiences at issue for families of color extend beyond disciplinary incidents.

In Brookeville, Md., Awo Ansu, an African American mother of two, said that for her family the risk of the pandemic was real. She lost 10 friends and relatives to the virus, many of them in New York City, where she grew up, went to law school and started her career.

So when Ansu and her husband weighed whether to send their children into bricks-and-mortar schools last year, they opted against it, for safety reasons and because there seemed little benefit to continuing with Zoom in a classroom, a common approach in the spring.

But with their youngest child struggling greatly, they allowed her to return to school in late April. The teenager did much better, then attended summer school. Ansu was determined that the girl not get tracked into lower courses because of the pandemic.

“I’ve always felt with both of my children that they don’t have as much leeway to mess up,” she said.

Both of Ansu’s children, now vaccinated, headed back in person when school opened Monday.

Chelsea Hughes, an African American mother of two in Montgomery County, says the pandemic gave her new insights about how her children learn and what they did not get at school. Her sons, both of whom have special needs, are in fifth and seventh grades and made the honor roll last year while learning from home.

She hoped to get them into her Maryland school system’s Virtual Academy.

But Hughes said by the time she found out how to apply, she had missed the deadline. She submitted belated applications three times, she said — and hopes they will make it off the waiting list. One of her children is immunocompromised.

“We have this new strain of covid out, and it’s really scary,” she said.

Many are hoping for better times this school year.

Tucker said her son, now 8 years old, is ready to return Monday, given the strength of the vaccination rollout and studies that show children learn best and develop socially when they are at bricks-and-mortar schools. Summer school went well.

His father, Greg, is president-elect of the PTA, and the family is hopeful about school system plans for an anti-racism audit.

As last school year was drawing to a close, Tucker brought up fall learning with her son.

He was not against the idea, she said — telling her that if all of the kids went back, he would go, too. But at another moment, his Zoom screen showed that at school, his in-person classmates were getting unruly.

“Being at home,” he told his mother, “you don’t get sent to the principal’s office.”

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