by Alycia Ramirez
It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic upended much of life as we knew it. We’ve not only had to drastically change how we live, work, and play but also how we provide an education to our kids. With public schools across Washington just returning to a hybrid model after months of remote learning this school year, there have also been calls demanding that school districts open immediately for full-time, in-person instruction. However, these calls often ignore entirely the inequitable effects the pandemic has had on Black and Brown communities.
The demands for full-time public school reopening increasingly come from white parents who say remote learning is disproportionately harming Black and Brown families and who claim a full reopen would benefit Black and Brown kids the most. At School Board meetings, on social media, and elsewhere, I have heard white parents repeatedly professing their concern for the widening education gaps facing Black and Brown children and insisting the remedy is to offer five-day-a-week, in-person instruction — now.
The realities for Black and Brown families returning to school is much more complex. Families of color, especially Black and Hispanic families, are keeping our kids home at higher rates than our white counterparts. A CDC survey found 62% of white parents were eager to return to in-person instruction and have enrolled their children in on-campus learning while only 46% of Black and 50% of Hispanic parents have. In our local schools the data show 66% of high school students in white-majority districts have returned to in-person instruction while only 43% in People of Color (POC) majority districts have. In Seattle Public Schools, only 33% of Black, 46% Hispanic, and 21% of Indigenous students preferred in-person learning versus 56% of white students.
Why this noticeable discrepancy over returning to school? It is complicated, but one of the contributing factors is the unequal impact the pandemic has had on communities. Marginalized groups — such as Black and Indigenous people — who have been on the receiving end of generations of systemic racism, have been more adversely affected by COVID-19 and are over-represented in hospitalizations, illness, and death from the disease. These communities are also more likely to live in multigenerational homes, so some families may feel sending their children back to in-person learning too soon could mean potentially sacrificing a vulnerable family member.
The educational inequalities we see, especially amongst our Black and Brown children, though exacerbated by COVID-19, have existed for generations thanks to systemic racism. The fact is, for some of us, schools have never really been “safe” places for our kids. For example, in 2019 a Black kindergartner at Seattle’s View Ridge Elementary was disciplined by being locked in a makeshift cage. Meanwhile, a white student in the Marysville School District made graphic threats to kill fellow POC classmates during an online high school class in December 2020, but faced little reaction from school authorities. Even more recently, a survey conducted in Seattle Public Schools by Students and Teachers Against Racism Coalition found almost 85% of students of color don’t feel safe in school.
No one is denying the pandemic has been hard on kids, or that a number of students have struggled academically, but putting bodies in physical school buildings is not the be-all and end-all solution, nor will it resolve the deep-seated issues with equity and racism that have plagued public schools for generations.
Funding for additional mental health support and resources at schools is not included in discussions of children’s mental health in this context, nor are the actual experiences of Black and Brown families. What about the kids who have had family members and loved ones hospitalized or die from COVID-19 or whose entire family got sick? These things can take a toll on mental health but are hardly ever talked about or acknowledged in conversations around student well-being and mental health.
Despite all these disparities, there are still parents clamoring for an immediate and full reinstatement of full-time, in-person learning. These parents tend to be wealthier and white. Locally, one of these groups is WA Alliance 4 Kids, which has been pushing for a full reopen since last fall. They adamantly insist schools not offering full-time, in-person learning are psychologically damaging kids and causing Black and Hispanic children to fall behind, yet WA Alliance 4 Kids has not advocated for funding more mental health supports at schools (i.e., counselors), nor have they reached out to the communities they claim to be advocating for to find out what their needs are and how best to amplify them. They have, however, allied with conservative groups, used marginalized families as an excuse to bash local teachers’ unions, and weaponized discussions — particularly around student mental health.
It is understandable that many families desperately want to get back to some semblance of “normal,” but the path to a post-COVID-19 education will likely look different for each community, especially those hit hardest by the pandemic. Instead of attempting to speak for these families or use us as a political weapon to attack teachers and try to strong-arm schools into offering immediate full-time instruction, white parents should cede the mic, and listen to and amplify these families’ needs.
School reopening isn’t enough. We need funding for additional mental health support in schools, investment in robust anti-racism curriculums, and a remote-learning option for the fall that doesn’t shortchange families. School boards and local/state leaders should also take the time to listen to families of color and take our concerns seriously. We also deserve a safe learning environment for our kids, in COVID-19 times and beyond. It is time to redefine what that looks like.
Alycia Ramirez is a community organizer active in the Seattle area with her primary focus being immigrant rights, anti-racism, and demilitarization of law enforcement agencies at the state and local level.
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