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Coronavirus is making the return to school a tough test for Black families

An education expert identifies the perils of the coming school year and what parents can do to help their kids

Summer is winding down, and across the country schools are reopening even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives. During the spring, as the coronavirus started to spread, schools closed abruptly, students were forced to switch to online instruction and that massive educational disruption fell particularly hard on Black and brown students.

Just as there has been no national approach to combating the pandemic that has infected 6.2 million Americans and killed almost 190,000, there are no common standards regarding schools reopening. Children of color, who are infected and hospitalized at higher rates than white children, were more likely to attend under-resourced schools before the pandemic and are now particularly vulnerable to a potential “lost” year of education.

“It’s an emotional trauma for the parents, and an emotional trauma for the students as well, so I think that’s something else that must be taken into account,” said Meredith Anderson, a researcher at the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) who focuses on K-12 education reform for African American students. Besides disparities in access to technology for online learning, Black students are disproportionately facing the loss of family members, food insecurity and economic hardship stemming from the pandemic, said Anderson. “So school districts will definitely need to take that into account when we’re talking about offering supports.”

Anderson spoke with The Undefeated about the challenges for Black families heading back to school during the pandemic, and she also highlighted the opportunities.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you describe some of the problems facing African American K-12 students before COVID-19 that make this year so potentially perilous?

Thinking about the problems beforehand, there were vast achievement and opportunity gaps. School districts that serve mostly students of color receive about $1,800 less in state and local funding per student than districts with lower populations of students of color. It’s the tax base issue — it’s where you live, it’s your ZIP code. Unfortunately, they have fewer resources than white students, so they are receiving more of a subpar education.

Subpar in what way?

There are disparities in terms of a lack of rigorous courses.

Meredith Anderson, a researcher at the United Negro College Fund, says that the digital learning gap and food insecurity are among the concerns for Black families as their children head back to school during the pandemic.

Dan Smith

In looking across the landscape in terms of AP class offerings, we know there are vast disparities between schools that have large percentages of minority students compared to those that do not. With AP courses, the schools often have to pay a fee for those courses, there’s another layer of bureaucracy that you have to go through. You have to have counselors in place to help disseminate information and work on tests and logistics. That’s going to create difficulty in terms of access. When you look at some of the national data as it relates to Black students having access to rigorous STEM courses, things like higher-level algebra or trigonometry, we know there’s less access to those courses with African American and low-income students.

If you look at the ACT standardized test as one particular indicator, for the 2019 ACT, African Americans were four times less likely than white students to meet three or more of the college readiness benchmarks that colleges often use.

In the lower-level grades, there are gaps in the earliest childhood education in terms of having a high-quality learning environment, with high-quality teachers who have the certifications, who have the experience, who have the training and support that they need. And also, teachers who care about and love our students. Research shows that African American teachers tend to have higher expectations of Black students. They are a positive influence, but only 7% of teachers are Black, so students are lacking that representation. They don’t see themselves in teachers and they don’t see themselves in their texts oftentimes, too.

That was all pre-coronavirus. What have been some of the greatest challenges now?

I would say there’s a digital learning gap. There’s food insecurity. There’s also issues related to African American parents being more likely to be on the front lines as workers, so that creates barriers to learning.

Some of the recent research shows that about 15 to 16 million public school students lack internet access or computing devices to properly facilitate this distance learning. So if there’s only one computer, maybe the student has to use the phone, and that’s not a proper learning environment. Or maybe they don’t even have the devices they need.

Thinking about just the food insecurity, many students really relied on school lunches as their main meals during the day. There was a lack of healthy food options in Black and brown communities before the pandemic, so this just exacerbates the problem. I saw a recent survey from Hunger Free America that said that 40% of parents reported cutting the size of their meals every day during the pandemic. Some districts have provided lunch, like Washington, D.C., but it’s fragmented across the country.

There was a recent Economic Policy Institute report that said Black workers make up about 1 in 6 front-line industry workers, so of course that takes time away from the learning environment and what they are able to offer their children.

What strengths are Black families able to bring to bear against all these educational challenges?

While there are definitely these issues, I’m careful not to have a complete deficit approach. We know Black parents are still resilient, still engaged and invested in their children during this time. Our research shows that 85% regularly read to their child, they check their homework, about 90% check their test scores, 75% speak to their child’s teachers. Even anecdotally, I’ve known many parents who have talked about yes, this is a pandemic, but we’re shifting to make sure we’re offering the best learning environment for our students. Many times, Black students were already getting a low-quality education, so parents are really trying to step in the gap to offer potential solutions and even assist in creating further gains for their children, so it’s a dual process. Black parents already lack trust in our educational system, so they want to step in when they can and help.

Historically, we have drawn on our strengths to be able to have schools that we created for our own communities. African American parents are holding on to these networks from churches, from various online schooling efforts that are more Afrocentric. I think, after this pandemic, you might see more African American parents potentially looking into home-schooling options.

I’m the parent of a toddler, and we did classes with her day care, and being innovative, and getting things from Amazon. Granted, I’m able to be home and to try to put on these dual hats and everybody is not able to do so. But for parents who are able, I feel they will take these opportunities. There’s often this narrative that Black parents are not invested in their child’s learning, but here at UNCF, we know that’s not the case. We’ve been doing this research for years and parents often feel like they want to do more, but sometimes they don’t feel welcomed in the school environment.

In some ways, the pandemic serves as an inflection point in education, as well as in health care, and all of it is happening against the backdrop of racial reckoning in nearly every institution of American life.

Right! So despite the digital learning gaps, recent polling work shows that about 70% of Black households said they wanted to keep their children online compared to 32% of white parents. They were still struggling with the fact that schools are not going to have their best interests at heart in terms of keeping their children safe.

So what should African American parents be doing now that schools are reopening? Are there any bright spots or things to be hopeful about for this school year?

One of the key pieces is making sure that if their child doesn’t have access to the resources for digital learning, they advocate for that at their local school boards and school districts. It’s to make sure their voices are heard, and also having that engagement with the teacher to make sure that they know some of the key resources at the start of the year. Make sure they understand the guidelines and the expectations of students early, so that they are able to work with children to stay on top of their learning.

Don’t be afraid to go to the school counselors, the school psychologist, the school social workers, who are often undervalued but can provide valuable support.

Being hopeful, I think it’s an opportunity for reimagining education right now. There’s opportunities for students to be innovative, for parents to be innovative and for parents to be even more engaged in the learning environment. It’s an opportunity for parents to have more voice in education, and I’ve seen more surveys and more outreach to parents. I think now more than ever, districts and systems are reaching out to communities to hear what they need.

I’m hopeful that if we can hear more community voices, you can actually make a difference.

Lonnae O’Neal is a senior writer at Andscape. She’s an author, a former columnist, has a rack of kids and she writes bird by bird.