Despeignes is a Black mother of two living in the Bronx, NYC. She’s taught on the college level and says she has little reason to trust that the nation’s largest school system has done the work to protect her sons’ health, or her own for that matter.
“My mantra is, if you can do it for yourself, you shouldn’t trust other people to do it for you. Because I can’t see for myself what’s going on in that building, I’m not going to trust somebody else to keep my children safe,” she said.
Though President Joe Biden and school districts around the country are pushing to reopen schools amid the pandemic, Black families are reportedly hesitant to send their kids back, echoing the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on Black communities, and the persisting issues between Black families and schools had long before the pandemic began.
The dilemma is further complicated given that schools being closed has impacted the academic progress and mental health of nonwhite students the most, forcing some mothers of color to leave the workforce to be there for their kids during remote learning.
Some leaders in education say the families that need their children back in school buildings the most are the most concerned about returning to in-person learning.
Across the nation, more white students have returned to school buildings, shifting the debate of reopening in the here and now.
In NYC, there are about 12,000 more white students who’ve returned to in-person learning than Black students, even though there are more Black students in the district. About 33% of Black families in Chicago, Illinois said they’re willing to return to traditional classrooms, compared to 67% of white families. Black families in Dallas, Texas, Nashville, Tennessee, and Oakland, California have all said they’ll keep their children learning virtually at home at higher rates than white families.
Last summer, the CDC conducted a survey that showed 62% of white parents strongly or somewhat agree that schools should reopen in fall 2020, while 46% of Black families shared the same sentiment. Both groups showed the same level concern about the quality of education their children were receiving.
A new report by the CDC indicates that schools located in communities with relatively low infection rates can reopen if the appropriate measures are taken. For Black families, however, ongoing racial injustice and systematic mistreatment of Black children in schools fuels mistrust that districts are being forthcoming about the risks involved with reopening schools.
“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, executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group in Tennessee said. “We know that our kids have lost a lot, but we’d rather our kids to be out of school than dead.”
The racial disparity present in the nation’s vaccination rollout, and the personal impact the virus has had on Black families across the US can’t be undone by the plans of President Biden who has promised racial equity to be foundational moving forward.
“The numbers have to go away for us to feel comfortable, and it doesn’t look like they’re going away any time soon,” Carpenter said.
Factors like disparities in school funding, health risks of family members living with school-aged children, and the growing trend of homeschooling among Black families are all shaping decisions to keep Black children learning at home.
“As bad as I want the schools open, I don’t want him in those classrooms,” Charles Johnson, a Brooklyn parent who has diabetes and other health conditions, said.
Much like how the economic crisis of 2008 left Black households vulnerable to the pandemic’s financial toll, decades of underfunding predominantly Black schools has left many of them unprepared to handle the coronavirus.
“If you know your school doesn’t have hot running water, how would you feel about sending your child to that school knowing they can’t fully wash their hands before they eat lunch?” asked Indiana University sociologist Jessica Calarco. There’s an estimated $23 billion gap between white and nonwhite school districts. That boils down to a $2,226 spending difference per student.
For these reasons and more, many Black families are holding off sending their children back to school, making the tough decision, and sacrificing, as the pandemic and its challenges rage on.
Photo: Getty Images