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Public schools in the town of Oxford, Mississippi, are scheduled to reopen in September, after an abrupt shutdown last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although the district is one of the most racially diverse in the state, school officials are expecting a fragmented return along demographic lines as more families of color than white families opt to enroll their children in online learning. Credit: Matthew Nichols/Flicker

Yolanda Logan, the parent engagement coordinator for the Oxford School District, spent two weeks in July making home visits — some announced, some cold-calls — to check in on the students educators had been most worried about when schools shut down in the spring. Some had test scores at the bottom at their class. Some belonged to families who had been struggling to make ends meet before the pandemic struck and devastated the economy.

Logan asked the students, and the adults in their lives, how they were holding up and what support they needed. She tried to gauge their comfort level with the district’s plan to reopen buildings this fall and address any concerns. Ready to answer questions about nuts-and-bolts issues, she had a checklist of important dates like registration deadlines and the first day of school at the ready. But as she went door to door, she met an unexpected wave of opposition.

Many Black and Latino families told her they were uncomfortable with sending their children back. When she was off the clock and brought up the issue with fellow parishioners of one the city’s most prominent Black churches, she met the same response: They wouldn’t budge, she said. “You (could) hear the intensity in their voices, hear their forcefulness.”

Almost 70 percent of Black households with school-aged children said they support or strongly support keeping all instruction online, according to a recent poll. Only 32 percent of white parents indicated the same.

Oxford is one of many districts offering parents a choice of either in-person or remote learning for their children as coronavirus cases continue to surge across the country. In Oxford, one of the state’s most diverse districts, parents are making their choices along distinctly racial lines. About 52 percent of the students who will stay at home for at least the first two months of the school year are Black, even though Black children account for only a third of the district’s enrollment.

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While Latino and Asian parents were more likely to opt-in for distance learning than white families, a greater percentage of Latino families enrolled their children for in-person instruction than Black families. White students, who make up just over half of the district’s student population schools, represent almost two-thirds of the students the district expects to see back on campus this fall.

Related: As we talk about reopening schools, are the teachers ok?

The trend could become national, as communities of color continue to be hit harder by the disease. Due to existing social inequalities that influence health outcomes like food insecurity, affordable housing, education and access to health care, Black Americans are more likely to have pre-existing health challenges, such as diabetes and hypertension, that put them at higher risk for Covid-19 complications. One-third of Black respondents to a Washington Post/Ipsos poll said they personally knew someone who died from the virus, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic adults and 9 percent of white adults. And although the majority of parents in a poll released on Thursday from the publication said returning to schools in their communities this fall would be unsafe, Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to view in-person instruction as unsafe compared to white participants.

As schools prepare to open in some states, Black families, in particular, may find the risks are too high. Almost 70 percent of Black households with school-aged children said they support or strongly support keeping all instruction online, according to another recent poll, from the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research. Only 32 percent of white parents indicated the same.

Several parents of color participating in a Tennessee focus group convened by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit that advocates for policies addressing inequities in education, said they were afraid to let their children return to school. A few parents indicated they were willing to leave their jobs to stay at home with their children if need be, said Kenya Bradshaw, vice president of engagement for the nonprofit. Education officials who don’t consider how racial disparities may impact parental choices about remote learning run the risk of making ill-informed decisions and “alienating communities that have been adversely impacted by education in the past,” Bradshaw added.

Related: Local control of schools leads to a patchwork of reopening plans

During Yolanda Logan’s home visits, in which Oxford’s superintendent, Brian Harvey, often joined, Black and Latino parents explained their reasons for keeping their children at home. Some wondered whether their children would receive proper medical care from local health providers if they fell sick. One student said he needed remote schooling because the flexible schedule allowed him to continue working and helping to support his family.

For one high schooler, the fear of contracting the virus at school and spreading it to vulnerable relatives at home was particularly acute.

“There’s not a minute that doesn’t go by (where I don’t) lay awake and try to make sure we’re looking at the big picture — how do we make this work?”

Harrison County Superintendent Roy Gill, on re-opening schools

“I can’t go back, Mr. Harvey,” Logan said he told the superintendent. “My mother has asthma.”

As a Black woman, Logan understood these fears, although she is choosing to send her 9-year-old twins back to school. She’s looked at data suggesting that children don’t seem to get as seriously ill from the virus, but when she’s mentioned her confidence in the reopening plan and touted the district’s new mobile health clinic, only a few parents have changed their minds.

Yet as parents of color make decisions that feel safest for their families, there could be a steep academic cost. If districts are unwilling, or financially unable, to step up with additional resources to improve online learning their children could lose additional ground. A group of analysts with the private firm, McKinsey & Company, projected that if students do not return to in-class schooling until January 2021, Black students may experience at least 10 months of learning loss, and Latino students nine months. If more families of color feel compelled to stay home, while more white families send their children to school, persistent achievement gaps could balloon further. 

District reopening plans that provide some level of flexibility to allow students to learn at home can still prove frustrating for underserved racial groups. In the Gulf Coast community of Harrison County, for example, the district gave parents until August 6 to show that they had reliable internet and a digital device in order to participate in remote learning. Otherwise, students would have to report in person to stay enrolled. Activists protested that many Black parents, who are already more likely to be disconnected and bring home lower wages than their white peers, would be forced to choose between their children’s education and their family’s health. 

In a letter to school board members, one pastor said the district was creating a barrier to distance learning that didn’t seem to take into account how the virus was afflicting Black residents. Several Black faith leaders have asked that families be given resources to participate in distance learning. (The district has ordered devices, but expects a months-long delay due to a backlog.)

While the district has done outreach with a local chapter of the NAACP, school officials haven’t analyzed the data to determine if there are demographic trends in parental choices for the fall.

Related: PROOF POINTS: Survey reveals stark rich-poor divide in how U.S. children were taught remotely during the spring school closures

Harrison County Superintendent Roy Gill told The Hechinger Report that the district has tried to make some accommodations. In July, the school board rolled back the technology requirement for parents who could provide doctors’ notes showing that their child’s potential infection from the virus placed vulnerable members of their household at risk of contracting a severe form of Covid-19. Initially, the exception was granted only to families who could show that returning to school would be a threat to their child’s health. For families with documented health challenges, Gill said the district would “do whatever is necessary, whether it’s electronic or paper and pencil.” 

Parents who don’t meet that threshold won’t have the same flexibility, at least for now. Gill isn’t eager to add to the number of students whose distance learning experience in the spring consisted mainly of printed packets and limited direct instruction. He said the district already expects learning losses from the spring shutdown to surface as students begin to return to class this week. Gill has tried to reach a compromise of sorts by setting up Wi-Fi-stations around the county, but said the district is in a holding pattern as it waits for thousands of devices to arrive.

“At the end of the day, this is our child. We’ve been making decisions for him our whole life, regardless of what the district or the Department of Education says.”

April Harriell, an Oxford, Mississippi, mom who has decided her second-grader will learn remotely for the start of the fall semester

“There’s not a minute that doesn’t go by (where I don’t) lay awake and try to make sure we’re looking at the big picture — how do we make this work?” said Gill.

Oxford officials are trying to improve remote instruction by learning from what went wrong this past spring, according to LaTonya Robinson, the district’s equity director. Students will receive real-time instruction and lessons will be recorded for students to review later. But making sure learning gaps don’t grow between the many students of color learning from home and the white students learning in person poses a complex challenge for the district.

Robinson’s team lobbied the district hard to assign as many teachers as possible solely dedicated to virtual classrooms, as opposed to having an in-person instructor attempting to provide equal attention to students watching from home. Some principals said they would work to identify their strongest teachers for the task. Robinson said the district has also invested in new software that tracks student participation down to the minute. Children who don’t reach a certain threshold of active time will receive additional check-ins from staff. Robinson said the district also plans to assign case managers to do follow-up.

Bradshaw, of the New Teacher Project, said administrators must keep in mind of the toll the pandemic has taken on communities of color, and the underlying mistrust many Black and Brown Americans feel after decades of disparate treatment. Since many schools serving children of color were in poor shape before the pandemic, it’s not surprising that parents are questioning whether their children will be kept safe now, Bradshaw said.

In Shelby County, Tennessee, for example, testing found high levels of lead in several school buildings serving Memphis-area students last winter. This summer less than a third of the families in the predominantly Black school district said they wanted schools to reopen for in-person instruction this fall.

Compare that to the affluent Memphis suburb of Collierville, where 60 percent of students are white. Eighty-one percent of families in the district said they wanted students to return for in-person instruction, albeit in a scaled back way where students would attend for only part of the week to allow for social distancing. Even then, a few dozen predominately white parents protested recently that the district should start off on a full five-day schedule.

Related: Parents are panicking, giving up their careers and spending thousands of dollars on piecemeal solutions for the school year

April Harriell, a Black mom in Oxford, said she’s noticed a racial divide among her friends over whether to send children back to school.

While scrolling through a Facebook group recently, she said most of the white parents in her feed seemed eager for school buildings to open, despite surging cases in the state. Several commented how their children really missed their friends and they were ready for extracurriculars to gear up again.

Among several Black parents, the tone was the opposite, she said: “Not mine.”

When she and her husband made the decision to keep their son home for half of the fall semester, Harriell said she didn’t think about how the pandemic was hurting Black Americans disproportionately on a conscious level. But she questioned whether the district’s logistical planning could ever provide real security for kids.

Teachers now have to balance giving their full attention to instruction, while ensuring that safety protocols are followed, she said. Harriell’s son is in second grade, an age group not exactly known for social distancing. She said the district is in a “tough bind,” and she doesn’t fault administrators for moving forward. As for her family’s decision, there’s nothing for her to second-guess.

“At the end of the day, this is our child,” she said. “We’ve been making decisions for him our whole life, regardless of what the district or the Department of Education says.”

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Mississippi Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Monday with trends and top stories about education in Mississippi. Subscribe today!

This story about families of color 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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Bracey Harris is a staff writer. Before joining The Hechinger Report, she covered politics and education for the Clarion Ledger where she also focused on government accountability for the paper’s investigative...

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