Sun. Nov 28th, 2021

Franetta Sinsabaugh’s frustrations with her children’s schooling had been building for a long time. Too much of the school year revolved around preparing for Texas’s standardized tests. The student-to-teacher ratio at her twins’ East Austin elementary school was higher than what state law mandated, she said. There was no money for art or science experiments or other hands-on activities — what Sinsabaugh calls “the fun parts of school” that get children engaged. Teachers told her they lacked basic supplies, like pencils and notebooks.

Then there were the racial injustices. Sinsabaugh, who is Black, felt that Black and Hispanic children were usually deemed the aggressors in bullying incidents. The family switched schools, and at their new school, she felt the educators pushed children, particularly those who are Black, into sports, when she would have liked to see them encouraged in math and science.

When COVID hit, schooling went remote. It was a rough transition. Sinsabaugh remembers a lot of arguing and crying — with her twins, who didn’t want to log on to school, and with educators whom she said talked down to her and called her “an irresponsible parent.” Sinsabaugh had already been thinking about homeschooling — she had experience leading educational activities through her job with a nonprofit youth organization.

Now that her work had gone remote, she decided that the pandemic presented a low-risk opportunity to try out homeschooling. She has been thrilled with the results. Both kids, now 12-years-old, had been several years behind in math, she said, and are now up to grade level. Her daughter, who has dyslexia, has become more confident with reading. Sinsabaugh plans to continue homeschooling this fall and has been encouraging fellow parents to do the same.

Franetta Sinsabaugh’s two children have benefited from homeschooling during the pandemic, she says, and she doesn’t plan to send them back to school buildings this fall. Photo by Franetta Sinsabaugh

Sinsabaugh is not alone. While many families are eager for a return to in-person learning this fall, others are not: Surveys show that some families are reluctant to return — and, that Black and Asian families are the most likely to feel this way. In early April, for example, only about 25 percent of Black parents expressed a preference for in-person learning over fully remote learning or a hybrid of the two, compared with 60 percent of white parents, per the University of Southern California’s Understanding Coronavirus in America tracking survey.

Meanwhile, Asian families in New York City opted for in-person learning this spring at the lowest rate of any demographic, a pattern that holds true elsewhere in the country. The share of Hispanic students opting out of remote learning has also been consistently higher than for non-Hispanic white students. COVID-related health concerns are one reason: People of color have been disproportionately impacted by the virus.

But time away from the education system has also given families the distance to reflect on the injustices their children face at school — and wonder if they’re better off at home. As school districts across the country reopen this fall, with some choosing to eliminate the remote learning option, these families are facing a dilemma over what to do. Schools, for their part, are rolling out programs they hope will ameliorate the past year-plus of learning loss and reacclimate students to the school environment, while also trying to find ways to win back the confidence of families and address the many challenges that fall will bring.

At P.S. 124 in Manhattan Chinatown, at least two families have declined kindergarten slots after learning that New York City will be eliminating the remote learning option this fall. Photo by Eveline Chao for The Hechinger Report

If schools fail to secure the trust of parents, advocates and educators worry that the public education system could see a falloff in enrollment, particularly among families of color. Some advocates also fear that schools faced with a larger proportion of students who are struggling or frequently absent will respond with overly punitive approaches, worsening racial inequality.

READ MORE: Remote learning has been a disaster for many students. But some kids have thrived

Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, co-founder of the education activism coalition Racial Justice NOW!, predicts “a sharp decline” in enrollment when schools fully reopen. “Before the pandemic, working-class parents, particularly Black working-class parents, were not served well in the schools,” she said, citing lack of communication between schools and parents as a top source of frustration. “I’m fearing that since the pandemic has happened, those lines of communication that barely existed before don’t exist at all now.”

Before the pandemic, the number of Black families homeschooling was rising swiftly, doubling between 2003 and 2018. Then, from spring to fall of last year, the proportion of Black homeschoolers increased almost fivefold, to 16.1 percent, according to Census Bureau data. Many of those families cited anti-Black racism in schools as the reason for the switch. As numerous studies have shown, Black students are not only more likely to be disciplined, but also more harshly and for lesser offenses, than their white peers.

This was a consideration for Sankara-Jabar, who sent her high-school-age son back to in-person classes when her school district reopened buildings last spring, but decided to homeschool her 6-year-old daughter. “I did not want her to be punished for being a kid and removing her mask at school,” she said.

Fresh on Sankara-Jabar’s mind was an April 2020 incident in which the police were called on a Black 7-year-old with autism in Washington, D.C., who had trouble keeping his mask on. Sankara-Jabar says she would prefer in-person instruction for her daughter, but feels that the way it’s being done by her district, with teachers simultaneously instructing virtual and in-person learners, means she might as well stay at home. This fall, she plans to continue homeschooling.

Theresa Stafford, a retired principal and executive director of New Beginnings Youth & Family Services, an educational enrichment program for low-income and vulnerable youth in Dorchester County, Maryland, on the state’s rural Eastern Shore, estimates that about half the families in her orbit are reluctant to return to in-person school.

Students from New Beginnings Youth & Family Services, in Cambridge, Maryland. Photo by Theresa Stafford

One young boy in her program who was frequently bullied at school was able to concentrate better on his schoolwork during remote learning. Some older teens have taken school shutdowns as an opportunity to work more, at fast-food chains or the local Walmart. Many students she works with are deemed disciplinary problems at school, making it a negative environment for them and their families. “So if their child is home, they don’t have to worry about anyone calling them saying their child is acting up,” Stafford said.

The Dorchester County district plans to go fully in-person come fall. Stafford fears that the students and the schools are unprepared. Some kids haven’t signed on to remote learning for the entire past year because of a lack of computer or internet access or because adults didn’t have the time or resources to supervise their learning, she said. Stafford feels that better communication is needed to address such issues, earlier, and would like to see schools find more effective ways to reach parents.

During Stafford’s time as principal of a career and technical education high school, the school counselor would visit the cafeteria of the local poultry plant where many parents were employed, in order to give them a chance to discuss their children’s education without having to take time off work. Several schools in the district are majority-Black while educators are predominantly white, and Stafford believes staff need more training in cultural competency and skills like conflict de-escalation.

Stafford was concerned that in February the school system began taking many students who were absent from remote learning to truancy court; she said that the messaging around virtual attendance policies had been “ambiguous.” David Bromwell, the district superintendent, wrote in an email that the school system “provided multiple interventions and communications were in place for truant students.”

Stafford worries that with so many more students behind or struggling this fall, schools will turn too quickly to punitive approaches instead of finding ways to work with families to problem-solve together, and that students of color will be disproportionately affected.

READ MORE: When it comes to reopening schools, it’s time to listen to Black families

“We’re going to have a ton of kids who have not been in the routine of … in-person schooling,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that addresses chronic absence in schools. “Teachers are really going to have to support this learning.” Parents, meanwhile, need to be able to trust that their schools know how to support and engage students in a way that is welcoming for all, she said.

Some school districts, such as Indian River, Florida, have already been successful in winning the trust of families and persuading a large proportion of their students to return to in-person education this past school year, she said. Chang attributes that success to district officials’ decision to closely monitor in-person and online attendance data and connect with families as soon as they noticed a child struggling.

In Alameda City schools in the Bay Area, educators partnered with the faith community to reach families through their churches. In East Haven, Connecticut, schools worked closely with the health department and hired health professionals to do individual outreach to families rather than truancy officers. This enabled families, especially those without access to good health services, to get reliable advice about both their school and health concerns, Chang said.

Principal Alice Hom speaking to parents and theater club students at P.S. 124 in 2018. Photo by Eveline Chao for The Hechinger Report

Even in non-pandemic times, many students and families struggle with obstacles like unsafe walks to school or a lack of transportation; aversions to school that stem from bullying or other negative experiences; and lack of engagement, whether due to a culturally unresponsive curriculum or difficulty connecting with the other students or adults in the school. This fall, “districts have to be really thoughtful and explicit about what are the steps they’re taking to creating physical and emotional health and safety at school,” said Chang. “They need to really lay out there: This is how we’re going to do it.”

For some Asian Americans, hesitancy about returning to school has been compounded by an epidemic of anti-Asian hate. Hate crimes against Asians surged by 150 percent in 2020, with the highest increases in New York City and Los Angeles, per the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Community advocates say many Asian American families are afraid to leave their homes. “Are you going to be targeted because you’re Asian American? Are you going to be harassed? Are you exposing yourself more than we need to the virus? Those are all prominent in folks’ minds right now,” said Vanessa Leung, co-executive director of the nonprofit Coalition for Asian American Children and Families.

At P.S. 124 in Manhattan’s Chinatown, principal Alice Hom says that, so far, two families have declined kindergarten slots after learning that New York City will be eliminating the remote learning option this fall. “Kids and parents are scared,” said Hom, particularly those who have to travel by train and bus to reach school. Some have lost family members to COVID. Hom says that about 70 to 75 percent of her school’s students opted for remote all last year, and from her conversations with them, it sounds like most rarely left the house. “It’s going to be an adjustment for them to be physically back in school,” Hom said.

To ease the transition, school leaders are organizing child-friendly activities that will give every family a chance to spend a few hours with teachers at the school building before this fall. They’ve been posting content online that enables students and their families “to see kids who actually are in school and how the conditions are,” said Hom.

They hosted a virtual town hall with the local police precinct, are planning to start the school year with discussions to help students articulate their social and emotional experiences and have been focusing staff professional development on trauma-informed teaching. School administrators are trying to find ways to address learning loss, another concern, especially among the school’s ESL students, over the summer while also being sensitive to families’ need to get a break from school. “So it’s a dilemma,” Hom said.

Meril Mousoom, a 17-year-old Bangladeshi American graduate of Stuyvesant High School, is distressed that the city has eliminated remote learning as an option for fall. Mousoom (who uses they/them pronouns), used to dread going to school each day, and was behind in many classes. They say the emotional distance afforded by online remote helped them understand why.

Meril Mousoom, who attends Stuyvesant High School in New York, has thrived in remote learning. Photo by Meril Mousoom

Mousoom spent a total of three hours each day commuting, via bus and subway, between their neighborhood in Queens and their school in Lower Manhattan. As a result, they frequently arrived home too tired to do homework and didn’t see much of their parents, who work long hours as a hospital worker and cab driver. That long commute is not uncommon in New York and elsewhere, especially for Black students, who in one analysis of five major cities, had longer school commutes than their white and Hispanic counterparts.

Meril Mousoom doesn’t miss a lot of things about their past school life, including the three-hour commute. Photo by Meril Mousoom

Though NYC offered a hybrid option this past school year, Mousoom chose to stay remote for most of it. Having more time for schoolwork and sleep improved their life. Mousoom ate lunch every day (they used to skip lunch to study), did their homework during the 10-minute breaks between virtual classes and took advantage of virtual office hours with teachers, something they had often been uncomfortable doing in person. “Office hours saved my life,” they said. “I sometimes have social anxiety, and it felt like teachers were more accessible.”

Nationwide, it won’t be clear for many months how many students will return to classrooms — some districts will report numbers this fall, but others won’t release figures until spring 2022. New federal money via the COVID relief plan that passed in April could help schools build better relationships with families of color — by partnering with community organizations to reach them, if necessary — and increase their staffing and partnerships to address parents’ concerns. The funding could also help schools invest in training in cultural competency and diversify their workforces. Especially in the wake of the pandemic, families need not just a school building that is physically safe, but a community that gives students a sense of support, belonging and connection, parents and advocates said.

For some parents, like Franetta Sinsabaugh, there’s no going back. She is determined to keep homeschooling her twins even after her job returns to in-person, and has been busily planning, with the help of her parents, how to make it work. Unlike before, her “kids aren’t stressed out, they’re learning and they’re happy,” she said.

“Families don’t want to go to the same schools that they were before,” said Zakiya Sankara-Jabar of Racial Justice NOW! “They want them to be improved.”

This story about the return to in-person learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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