The racial and income fault lines over ‘back to school’

By: - February 3, 2021 7:00 am
Black children in a classroom sitting at table raising their hands

Stock photo/Getty Images

During a Jan. 12 floor debate, state Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) called the use of virtual school amid the COVID-19 pandemic a “social injustice.”

Kooyenga was decrying a proposal from state Senate Democrats to suspend standardized testing along with state grades for schools and districts that rely on student test scores. As he made his argument, he criticized districts that have stuck to remote teaching as they try to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“The greatest source of social injustice in this state is our lack of fair access and fair outcomes in our educational system,” Kooyenga declared. “That was before COVID. And here we have kids of color in this state that, on average, have less access [to attend school] in a physical school building than the other kids throughout the state.”

It’s an argument frequently made by lawmakers who insist that schools must return to in-person classes as soon as possible: Virtual schooling is leaving kids behind, they contend, and children from low-income families, who are often Black and brown, suffer the greatest harm.

But have they checked with those families?

Republicans in the Wisconsin Legislature have advanced proposals to make in-person class all but mandatory, including one that would require school districts to get a two-thirds school board vote before going all-virtual, and to hold a new vote every two weeks to remain that way. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards has opposed the legislation, which faces a likely veto if it even reaches the governor’s desk.

“Disadvantaged students are hurt even more by these shutdowns literally taking away valuable opportunities for advancement,” stated Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) in a Dec. 15 appeal demanding that Wisconsin schools “make the right decision for kids and return to in-person classes.”

But while lawmakers and others who call for a swift return to face-to-face teaching focus on poor families and families of color, many of those same families are reluctant to go back. They point to two major reasons: They fear for their families’ safety in the pandemic, and their children have felt more welcomed by virtual school.

Divergent attitudes by income, race

Early in the summer of 2020, a nationwide survey found that more than half of lower-income parents wanted school buildings to stay closed, compared with only 27% of parents in families with incomes of more than $150,000 a year. When the answers were compared by race, nearly 70% of Black families favored all-online instruction, compared with 32% of white families.

In December, a Chicago Public Schools survey found that while two-thirds of white parents said they planned to have their children return in person to begin the new year, only one-third of Black parents said they would do so. (This district is now the scene of a standoff between the teachers union and the administration over returning to buildings.)

Epidemiologist Theresa Chapple
Epidemiologist Theresa Chapple

“It has to do with the impact of the pandemic,” says Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist near Washington, D.C., who has advised school districts on their reopening plans.

Black families and other families of color are more likely than white people to get sick, go to the hospital and die from the virus.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS), Latinx people account for 7.1% of the state’s population, but 11.3% of the COVID-19 cases. Black people are 6.4% of the population and 7% of the cases — but 12.2% of the people who are hospitalized for COVID-19 in Wisconsin.

Similar disparities have been reported nationwide. “So minority families are being more conservative in their approach to sending children back to school,” Chapple says.

Black and brown individuals are also more likely to know someone who has contracted COVID-19.

Ingrid Walker Henry, a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) teacher and vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), was a personal acquaintance of one of the city’s first COVID-19 casualties. “We haven’t had the opportunity to say, ‘It’s not really here — I don’t really know anybody’” who has gotten the virus, she says.

Multi-generational households

Social conditions amplify the risks.

Some analysts have claimed children are less likely to experience severe symptoms from COVID-19. Chapple questions the evidence for those assertions, but she points out that even if the claim holds up, children are still able to transmit the virus to other, more vulnerable people.

“In the Black community, there are a lot of multi-generational homes,” says Chapple, whose 66-year-old mother lives with her family. “My children will not return to school and bring home something that could possibly kill their grandmother.”

Francisco Sanchez, the community-school coordinator for South Division High School in Milwaukee, has talked to school families as well as friends who are the parents of school-age children.

“Although school has not gone back in person, there are fears if and when students are coming back to school — what are schools doing to control sanitation?” Sanchez says. “How are they making sure that that virus isn’t being carried from one student to another?”

Low-income families and families of color have less access to adequate health care, adding to their apprehension.

“This absolutely hits the African American community harder,” Milwaukee School Board member Marva Herndon said at a Jan. 26 meeting as the board faced pressure, including from City Hall, to open up school buildings in the coming weeks. Herndon spoke of two family members who died from the disease, including one who was more vulnerable to the virus because of an auto-immune disorder.

Current resources are inadequate to justify a return-to-school mandate, she said.

“Our city government, the mayor, whoever, should step up to the plate and fight for us to get what we need in order to safely put our students and staff back in school.”

‘Happy with virtual learning’

The health risk they face isn’t the only reason families of color are more reluctant to return to in-person schooling. Some have found that virtual school, for all its challenges, offers a more welcoming environment than they’ve experienced face-to-face.

“A lot of Black and brown families are happy with virtual learning,” says Madison School Board member Savion Castro. “They’re thinking they’re getting more contact and better contact with teachers” in comparison to their experiences in the brick-and-mortar classroom.

“The idea of going back is not that attractive to a lot of Black families,” says Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education and an emerita professor of the UW-Madison School of Education. “They’re going back to a place where their kids have already been marginalized, where their kids are hyper-scrutinized. So if they’re not perfectly satisfied that it’s going to be safe [to go back in person], why should they want to do it?”

Black students are disproportionately targeted for school disciplinary measures during a typical school year. By contrast, says Castro, “this will be the first school year where we don’t have any suspensions.” 

Henry, the MTEA vice president, has received anecdotal accounts of stronger parental engagement in the current school year.

“So many teachers were talking about how many parents showed up for conferences,” she says. “The number is way higher.”

Virtual conferences make that possible. “A lot of people can’t take that hour out of their day or out of their work to do that,” says Henry — especially if it requires scheduling a trip across town. With the shift to online conferences, “It’s given educators a lot more time to connect with families.”

Henry — who is both an MPS parent and a teacher in the district — doesn’t deny the massive disruption that shifting to virtual school had in many districts. But she contends her colleagues have managed the transition during the current school year after they were “asked to learn a lot in a very short amount of time” in the Spring of 2020 when schools quickly shut down statewide early in the pandemic.

With the talk of children “falling behind” this year, Henry asks, “Behind who? All the other children who are trying to make it through a pandemic?”

The question gets to a fundamental and often overlooked issue about how well students are learning in the current environment.

“In the midst of a pandemic, there’s more to be concerned about than just grades,” says Chapple. The epidemiologist challenges the assumption that “there is a learning loss that’s happening as a result of virtual schools.” Chapple adds: “The question is, is the learning loss a result of living in a pandemic, and not virtual schools? And how are you teasing those apart?”

Disparities are long-standing

The families who are cautious about returning to in-person classes, and the educators and health practitioners who share their concerns, acknowledge that virtual learning has presented enormous challenges, particularly in lower-income communities.

“When you start talking about equity there’s multiple layers to it,” says Sanchez, the South Division High School coordinator. “For a 5-year-old learning to read, Zoom is not the best avenue,” he adds. Parents want to “make sure that their child is advancing and moving forward.”

Technology can be a barrier for lower-income families. For a family with several kids, each with a school-issued tablet or notebook computer, but no internet connection or insufficient bandwidth for those computers online at once, “the access is just not there,” Sanchez says. A poor family threatened with eviction faces losing not just housing but the ability to connect to school for virtual classes.

Families of color are also disproportionately found among the essential workers who can’t simply do their jobs at home.

Sanchez says parent attitudes also vary depending on their children’s age group. Parents of younger children might favor staying at home because they’re not sure how well the school will ensure kids will follow safe practices: staying masked and staying far enough apart from each other to reduce the risk of passing the virus.

Meanwhile, parents whose children are in high school may focus more on what their students are missing out on.

For one student that might be help and encouragement from the guidance counselor to apply for college. For a student athlete counting on an athletic scholarship to make college a possibility, it might be continuing to play in order to keep the door open — or  just to provide the motivation to stick with school.

“Inner city people aren’t fighting for their homecoming, they aren’t fighting for their graduation ceremony,” says Sanchez. “They’re fighting for the opportunities that come with it.”

And parents who might not feel it’s safe to send their kids back to in-person classes still want to know, “What is the school doing to ensure my child is still receiving a high quality education,” he adds.

In recommendations it issued last summer urging a return to in-person education, the American Academy of Pediatrics emphasized the disparities for children from families of color and low-income communities. But the medical group also emphasized “ensuring equitable access to educational supports for children living in under-resourced communities” regardless of whether school is face-to-face or virtual.

An opportunity to rethink school

The inequalities that COVID-19 has highlighted are real, says Castro of the Madison School Board — and they’ve been around since long before the pandemic forced schools to do things differently.

“In this rush to reopen school, we really have to examine, was school working for everybody before?” Castro asks. “And were schools properly resourced?”

Even before the pandemic, for example, partial-day 4-year-old kindergarten classes posed a barrier for many working parents in the Madison district, Castro says. As schools begin to combine some in-person classes along with virtual schedules, “We’re going to have to make sure those hybrid school schedules are in alignment with parents’ work schedules, too.”

Schools need to address other disparities, too — for instance, ensuring that all schools have adequate personal protective equipment such as masks for those who need them, and “making sure all the windows work and there is proper ventilation,” he says. “And then when we go back, we’ll have to ease into it.”

Chapple says that as schools make their plans to reopen they need to consider whether it will “make sense to exacerbate disparities if your minority population won’t return at the same rate as your majority population.”

She counsels schools, before they reopen, to take account of how many of their families live in multi-generational houses, how many have had someone in, or close to, the family who has been infected with COVID-19, or hospitalized, or died from it.

“And these are things that are going to be more prevalent in the minority community than it is in the majority community,” Chapple says. “And I’m not sure that that’s entered into the conversation.”

And on a broader scale, says Castro, “Black and brown kids are having a newfound control over their education. When we go back in person, how do we keep that going? That’s a conversation we’re having internally: When we reopen, what do we want to do differently?”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.

MORE FROM AUTHOR