In Reopening Debate, We Must Not Forget Black and Brown Students

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 25, 2021

As conversations about reopening schools continue, we must not forget to prioritize the needs of those who most heavily bear the burden of the myriad issues exacerbated by COVID: our historically underserved Black and Brown students.

Calls for reopening schools have focused on reengaging students who have been absent during remote learning—disproportionately students of color—but parents of students of color are substantially more likely to report they don’t yet plan to enroll their children for in-person instruction. Education Reform Now’s (ERN) DC state chapter recently found that just 26% of Black parents said they believe schools should be open for in-person instruction, compared to 67% of White parents. A district survey in Chicago found similar gaps between White and non-White parents.

Given that students of color disproportionately live in communities with high COVID infection and death rates, and that, even before the pandemic, they attended classes in crumbling school buildings without proper ventilation, it’s not surprising that these same parents are hesitant to bring their children back.

While the Biden administration has said its committed to reintroducing science as a top priority measurement for safely reopening schools—a choice we certainly applaud and agree with—his pledge to reopen all K-8 schools in his first 100 days and recent “miscommunications” around what counts as “open” make it clear that politics is still playing a too a large a role in reopening discussions.

The ultimate goal should be to get as many students—particularly students most academically at risk—safely back into the classroom as quickly as possible. New Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on school reopening, coupled with funding from COVID relief bills, should support schools in identifying and implementing necessary protocols to ensure educator and student safety.

But this cannot be done until our schools and communities have addressed the concerns of parents and educators alike, and we know that in reality, safely reopening will take longer for under-resourced schools than for schools in more affluent areas. School leaders must act with transparency and build trust with Black and Brown parents, so they can feel confident that their children will be safe back in classrooms—a difficult feat given the generational mistrust and harm due to rampant inequity.

Yet, policymakers, advocates, and educators must also not let the reopening debate detract from the crisis of gaping disparities in connectivity for distance learning. While some progress around the access to and quality of remote education has been made, too little still continues to be done. Almost a full year since schools closed, 12 million students still don’t have internet connections sufficient for engaging in remote learning—that includes 30% of Black students and 26% of Latinx students.

Additionally, recent survey data finds that just 35% of parents with students in remote learning reported their students are receiving regular one-on-one interactions with teachers, and only 42% percent are receiving daily feedback.

But teachers are not to blame here. Teachers are working harder than ever to reach their students, often providing instruction to students in person and remotely simultaneously.

Districts—under pressure from politicians and the media and lacking strong state and federal guidance—have largely failed teachers and students alike by focusing on reopening school buildings rather than improving remote learning for those who most need the support.

Rather than trying to stymie the increase in learning loss that’s disproportionately affecting our underserved students, districts instead are looking to their teachers to perform difficult feats entirely on their own. Just 3% of teachers report that they have access to professional curriculum designed for remote instruction, and the same study found that 87% of administrators expected teachers to develop their own materials for remote instruction.

Additionally, most states and school districts are showing a lack of creativity in supplying tutoring and access to publicly-funded “pandemic pods” to complement remote learning—a breach in equity as more affluent parents are able to pay for these exclusive services out of their own pockets. A recent study of learning pods by CRPE found that it is community-based organizations, and not public school districts, that are offering parents instruction to supplement school-based remote learning.

Let’s be clear: millions of students will be learning remotely through the end of the school year. These students—given the political influence on reopening, the very legitimate reluctance of parents of color to return, and distancing guidance limiting options for overcrowded urban school buildings—will disproportionately be students of color. And these same students have already suffered from unevenly bearing the brunt of COVID’s impacts on learning loss and resource inequities.

We cannot lose sight of their futures as we work to safely reopen school buildings. Nor can we perpetuate the inequity of underserving those who have historically been forgotten—because every student deserves a chance at equitable education, and so far, our students deserve better than what they’re receiving.