Even as more districts reopen their buildings and President Biden joins the chorus of those saying schools can safely resume in-person education, hundreds of thousands of Black parents say they are not ready to send their children back. That reflects both the disproportionately harsh consequences the coronavirus has visited on nonwhite Americans and the profound lack of trust that Black families have in school districts, a longstanding phenomenon exacerbated by the pandemic.
It also points to a major dilemma: School closures have hit the mental health and academic achievement of nonwhite children the hardest, but many of the families that education leaders have said need in-person education the most are most wary of returning.
That is shifting the reopening debate in real time. In Chicago, only about a third of Black families have indicated they are willing to return to classrooms, compared with 67 percent of white families, and the city’s teachers’ union, which is hurtling toward a strike, has made the disparity a core part of its argument against in-person classes.
In New York City, about 12,000 more white children have returned to classrooms than Black students, though Black children make up a larger share of the overall district. In Oakland, Calif., just about a third of Black parents said they would consider in-person learning, compared with more than half of white families. And Black families in Washington, Nashville, Dallas and other districts also indicated they would keep their children learning at home at higher rates than white families.
Education experts and Black parents say decades of racism, institutionalized segregation and mistreatment of Black children have left Black communities to doubt that school districts are being upfront about the risks.
“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,” said Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy group in Tennessee. “We know that our kids have lost a lot, but we’d rather our kids to be out of school than dead.”
In many cities and districts, Latino and Asian-American families are also less likely than white families to send their children back. Asian-Americans have opted out of in-person classes at the highest rates of any ethnic group in New York City. Latino families in Chicago were most likely to say they would keep their children at home when schools reopened.
Still, the pattern is most consistent and pronounced with Black families, which have been particularly affected by decades of underinvestment. By one estimate, a $23 billion gap, or $2,226 per pupil, separates funding for predominantly white districts and nonwhite districts, and Jessica Calarco, a sociologist at Indiana University Bloomington who has studied reopening, said the pandemic had amplified that inequity.
“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?” she asked.
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