For Farah Despeignes, the choice of whether to send her children back to New York City classrooms as the coronavirus pandemic raged on last fall was no choice at all.
Ms. Despeignes, a Black mother of two, watched in despair as her Bronx neighborhood was devastated by Covid-19 last spring. She knew it would take a long time for her to trust that the nation’s largest public school system could protect her sons’ health — and by extension her own.
“Everything that has happened in this country just in the last year has proved that Black people have no reason to trust the government,” including public school systems and her sons’ school building, said Ms. Despeignes, an elected parent leader on the local school board who has taught at several colleges.
She added, “My mantra is, if you can do it for yourself, you shouldn’t trust other people to do it for you. Because I can’t see for myself what’s going on in that building, I’m not going to trust somebody else to keep my children safe.”
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 virus 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.
Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 62 percent of white parents strongly or somewhat agreed schools should reopen that fall, compared with 46 percent of Black parents, even though both groups expressed the same level of concern about the quality of their children’s education.
And multiple studies, including a new C.D.C. report, have found that schools that take appropriate safety measures can reopen in communities with relatively low coronavirus infection levels.
Education experts and Black parents say decades of racism, institutionalized segregation and mistreatment of Black children, as well as severe underinvestment in school buildings, 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.”
Mr. Biden wants to ramp up virus testing and vaccinations, while pushing Congress for billions of dollars to help schools reopen safely. He has promised that racial equity would be a cornerstone of his coronavirus response.
But the trust gap is not limited to education; many Black Americans are similarly skeptical of the medical establishment and are thus more likely than white people to express wariness about being vaccinated.
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.Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times
Ms. Carpenter said that as Black communities across the country see people dying disproportionately — she knows five people who have died of the coronavirus, most recently a mother of five, including a three-week-old baby — plans are not enough. Though children have largely been spared by the coronavirus, federal data released last fall showed that those who have died or developed life-threatening complications have predominantly been children of color. That trend has continued this year.
“The numbers have to go away for us to feel comfortable, and it doesn’t look like they’re going away any time soon,” Ms. Carpenter said.
Such sentiments have altered how millions of American children are learning during the pandemic. A recent poll from Education Next, a journal published by Harvard, found that low-income Black and Latino students were much more likely to be receiving fully remote instruction than higher-income white children. Black parents were 19 percentage points less likely than white ones to choose in-person learning when the option was available. Latino parents were eight percentage points less likely.
That dynamic is shaping what schooling will look like as the pandemic ebbs. Some districts, including San Antonio, have said they will likely keep some version of remote learning into next year and potentially beyond, because of parent demand.
And superintendents and educators are facing mounting pressure to finally confront the trust problem.
“Covid-19 has blown the doors off our schools and the walls off our classrooms,” Sonja B. Santelises, the chief executive of Baltimore City Public Schools, which began reopening in November, wrote in a recent opinion article. “No longer are our practices hidden behind doors or buried in the pages of policy and collective bargaining agreements; they are now in full view on a screen.” She added, “And our parents are watching.”
Sonya D. Horsford, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said the moment presented an opportunity for public schools to rethink much of what was not working for Black children.
“It’s a great time to have that conversation about the source of mistrust and what we want as part of this recovery,” Ms. Horsford said. “Is it really just getting kids back into schools?”
Thousands of Black students have returned to classrooms in recent months. Remote learning has been disastrous for many children of color in particular, and data has shown that students are falling behind in key subjects. That could undermine decades of work by local school districts and the federal government to narrow the achievement gap between Black and white students.
In interviews, some parents said they felt they had little choice but to return their children to classrooms so that they could work. Others said they could no longer bear seeing their children struggle with online learning.
Charles Johnson, a Brooklyn parent, allowed his son to return to in-person high school classes last fall after his son pleaded for it. Then he attended one day of classes before the city shuttered high schools indefinitely.
“He hates remote learning, oh my gosh, he hates it,” Mr. Johnson said. But Mr. Johnson, who has diabetes and other health issues, said he would not consider sending his child back. The risk feels too great.
“As bad I want the schools open,” he said, “I don’t want him in those classrooms.”
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 segregation, disinvestment and racism. 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.
Home-schooling among Black families has been on the rise for years, and Ms. Calarco said the pandemic could encourage more families to leave the public school system altogether.
For some families, remote learning has offered a measure of control over an education system that can often feel opaque: parents can see how their children are taught and treated by their teachers.
It has also allowed some children to largely escape hostile school environments. Even while learning at home during the pandemic, Black children have continued to be subjected to harsher disciplinary practices, and jarring interactions with school staff.
And the once-in-a generation public health crisis has not stemmed the routine traumas that Black students face in schools. Last week, a video emerged from a high school in Florida, where some schools are open, showing a deputy sheriff slamming a girl to the sidewalk where she appeared to lose consciousness.
Bernita Bradley, a longtime activist for public school families in Detroit, said longstanding issues around schooling did not change during the pandemic. Many Black families still see the education system as punitive — for example, the district has sent threatening emails about parents’ turning on their children’s cameras during virtual classes.
In Detroit, 16 percent of Black children returned to in-person classes in the fall, before schools shuttered again, compared with 27 percent of white children. White students make up only about two percent of the district overall. Recent surveys showed that more Detroit parents were willing to consider in-person learning when the city reopens schools this month.
Ms. Bradley, who said she helped the Detroit school system survey parents and connect with families during the pandemic, said those numbers showed the generational trauma suffered by the community.
“We have people who are working 40-50 hours a week to make the bare minimum, and they’re taking care of four to five children,” she said. “All of that stems from education.”
Ms. Bradley, who is also a member of the National Parents Union, an organization representing families of color, said its parent surveys reflected concerns about returning to the status quo.
In August, Ms. Bradley helped a group of more than a dozen fed-up families create a home-school co-op called the Engaged Detroit Home-Schooling Network.
“Before the pandemic, we’ve had so many fights with schools around special education plans, why this child or that one was suspended for 90 days with no work, why graduation rates are so low,” Ms. Bradley said. She added, “The school system asks parents to be patient because it’s a pandemic, but we’ve been told for years, ‘Give us time.’ How many years are we going to hear that?”