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Most reports about Black students’ experiences during the 2020-21 school year focused on challenges their families faced. There were urgent calls for schools to reopen, especially to better serve students of color.
Because of that, I was surprised to hear some Black families at a town hall meeting focusing on the benefits of distance learning.
“We’ve started something new that we can’t go away from. … Parts of this [are] working for my kid,” the mother of a high school senior reflected during the event.
That meeting was one of the first times I heard Black families discuss positive experiences during virtual school.
What was missing in that previous reporting was the acknowledgment that schools were struggling to serve Black students before the pandemic. We know this to be true from research on Black children’s limited access to grade-level content and higher likelihood of severe disciplinary measures.
In my work as an elementary school teacher and principal, too often I saw teachers and administrators struggling to serve Black families. In my work at Silicon Schools Fund, I partner with and learn from leaders across Northern California who are creating solutions to education’s challenges — in and out of a pandemic.
After meeting with families throughout California, I’m convinced that the high school parent who spoke at the town hall is right. While virtual learning during the pandemic has been far from ideal, it has two benefits that have helped schools better serve Black students and families: increased technology access that dramatically closed the digital divide for most students and stronger communication between schools and families.
Both are benefits we can and should keep as we begin to reopen our schools.
Before the pandemic, students of color were far less likely than white students to have access to Wi-Fi and personal computers. Distance learning dramatically closed the digital divide because these tools became a necessity to attend school.
A grandmother of four shared with me that before the pandemic her grandchildren had 30 minutes of computer time in school each week, while more privileged students at other schools had daily time online. When schools went virtual, this “privilege” of daily access to technology was extended to more Black students.
As one father told me, “normal wasn’t working for our kids.”
Many Black families agreed that the benefits of technology far outweigh any difficulties. One mother called access to technology a blessing because of the opportunities it created, such as giving parents visibility into their children’s schoolwork. The flexibility of the technology helped parents become active partners in learning. The technology also challenged students to self-motivate, helped them build confidence as they navigated learning platforms and encouraged older students to work independently, as they will need to do in college.
The Black families I’ve spoken with believe that using technology in day-to-day learning is preparing their children for the future. Ensuring access to technology remains one of the best ways for schools to create more equitable and welcoming learning environments.
Related: As schools reopen, will Black and Asian families return?
A second pandemic virtual learning benefit has been improved communication. Overall, historically, Black families have been more likely to feel disconnected from their schools. Low levels of trust between families of color and schools were widely discussed during the school reopening debate. Many Black parents reported having nearly nonexistent relationships with their schools’ teachers and principals. During the pandemic, this changed dramatically as staff relied heavily on families to work alongside them and their students.
Families reported that their contact with school staff was not only more frequent during virtual learning but also more meaningful. Many felt that for the first time they were treated as valuable partners in their child’s education.
Parents appreciated schools’ efforts to stay in touch — whether through text, Zoom meetings, a quick call or comments on student work.
One mother of six urged schools to keep checking in “emotionally, physically and socially — because then we can get to learning.”
Kind and open communication builds trust. Trust building is critical, given the history of neglect and disconnect between schools and Black families.
Keeping such partnerships and communication going could be accomplished by maintaining a few of the practices from the past year, even as buildings fully reopen. That means continuing to use video conferences to ensure that more parents can participate, and continuing outreach focused on emotional support — which sets the foundation for learning.
With that continued communication from teachers, parents can better collaborate to support their children in reaching their learning goals.
Last year provided a learning opportunity for schools to change how they serve Black students. Now schools have an opportunity to evolve and become more equitable as we return to in-person learning. My conversations with Black families made it clear that there are two areas schools should include in their evolution this fall:
- Using technology to accelerate and differentiate student learning: Access to computers and Wi-Fi should be extended beyond virtual learning to help students develop skills they’ll use in their careers and everyday lives.
- Expanding communication modes, frequency and strategies to engage parents in their students’ learning: During virtual learning, families had more clarity about what their children were learning and how to support them. Communication practices that make parents partners build trust and enhance student learning.
It would be a shame if we reopen schools and go back to “normal.” This is especially true for our Black students because, as one father told me, “normal wasn’t working for our kids.”
Loretta Hickman is the director of academic initiatives at the Silicon Schools Fund. Laura McGowan-Robinson, CEO of the Diversity in Leadership Institute, contributed to this piece.
This story about Black students and post-pandemic schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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