Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson had a blunt message last month for anyone following the city’s charged debate about reopening schools.
“If we are really serious about equity, we have to address the fact that many of our African American students are struggling in this environment,’’ Johnson said during an appearance on CNN, echoing a refrain that should be familiar to anyone following the debate to reopen K-12 schools for in-person learning.
Jackson is among the many educators speaking out on ways the pandemic has impacted student learning, arguing that opening school buildings is critically important for ensuring the academic success of Black students.
Reopening advocates in Congress, state legislatures and city councils are sharing similar sentiments, claiming to support reopening schools on behalf of Black students who have fallen behind during remote learning.
Yet, in district after district, Black families are largely choosing to continue learning from home, despite efforts to reopen their schools. Rather than using equity as a buzzword to gain moral high ground in the reopening debate, we believe that advocates and school officials should listen to and engage with Black families and trust their decision-making.
It should come as no surprise that many Black families are choosing to keep their children at home: Nearly one-third of Black Americans know someone who has died from Covid-19. More than 75 percent of children who have died from the disease are Black, Latinx or Native American.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advocate for reopening schools for in-person learning, it also warns that schools are not silos and are not inherently insulated from the virus.
The CDC has advised that community spread must remain low for schools to remain safe, and while rates of new cases and hospitalizations are now declining, thousands of new cases are still being identified each day.
If we really care about an equitable approach, we must attempt to understand the reticence of some Black families to return to in-person learning.
The emergence of new variants with greater degrees of transmission presents new challenges and questions that school leaders must address. A critical first step in addressing these challenges must involve leaders intentionally seeking out and listening to the voices of Black families just as much as they are listening to the loudest advocates for reopening school buildings.
Black families do not require advocates to speak on their behalf. Many are communicating their concerns about proposed reopening plans through their refusal to reenroll their children in school buildings they believe are unsafe due to the pandemic.
In many ways, these schools were unsafe for Black children pre-pandemic, due not only to inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, but also to the oppressive discipline policies and at times overt racial violence that Black students face. In schools throughout the country, Black children are often the most marginalized. Any plans to reopen buildings for in-person instruction must reckon with this reality and ensure that Black students’ individual needs will be met.
Countless media reports have detailed the struggles that many students of color have had since the onset of the global pandemic. Last November, a nonprofit research group expressed concern that racial inequities already in place prior to the pandemic might deepen as many schools continued with remote learning.
In a specific instance, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland, in an October 2020 report, described how some Black students in Montgomery County struggled with remote learning as they attempted to care for sick family members and maintain their households.
Both reports highlighted real concerns regarding widening racial disparities as a result of unequal access to online learning. Such reports have been used to effectively frame the pandemic as a remote learning crisis for Black children across the United States.
In turn, advocates for reopening have often framed the decision to resume in-person instruction as a matter of equity. As two Black educators watching this debate unfold in school districts across the country, we ask: Equity for whom and at whose expense?
Of course, equity should be a critical component of any attempt to reopen schools. As researchers, we’ve worked tirelessly to advance educational equity throughout our careers.
But it is disingenuous at best to frame the current reopening efforts as focusing on some vague notion of equity. What families and teachers deserve are reopening plans that are collaborative and inclusive, and that address the inequities many Black families experience daily.
If we really care about an equitable approach, we must attempt to understand the reticence of some Black families to return to in-person learning. An equitable approach could include comprehensive surveys and targeted focus groups with Black families, designed to co-construct reopening plans that meaningfully incorporate their input and feedback.
It could include partnerships with community-based organizations directly connected to Black families to find ways to support reopening while addressing on-going health and safety efforts like testing and vaccination distribution.
An equitable approach would center the experiences and opinions of Black students who are learning remotely. Students are attuned to the unique challenges they face and can provide crucial feedback to improve online learning.
And if school districts are truly committed to educational equity, district leaders will listen to Black families and try to solve some of the systemic inequities that disproportionately impact Black families — and were doing so long before the pandemic shuttered schools.
James Bridgeforth is a former public school teacher and a doctoral student in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.
Steve Desir is a doctoral candidate in educational leadership in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California.
This story about reopening schools in the pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.