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'I Don't Trust What The Department of Education Is Saying': Parents of Color Choose All-Remote Learning at Higher Rates

remote learning NYC schools

Remote learning in action (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

Confidence in the New York City Department of Education and other local leaders is low for Yalena Figueroa, a Hispanic mother of two public school students learning remotely this school year from Astoria, Queens.

Figueroa wanted to send her fifth-grader and ninth-grader back to school, especially her teenager starting at a new high school. However, due to the concerns raised by teachers and news outlets, she said remote learning was a no-brainer for her. Both Figueroa and her teenage daughter are immunocompromised, and her primary concerns with school reopening include the cleaning and ventilation of classrooms. “I don’t trust what the Department of Education is saying about school safety. I trust the judgment of teachers,” she said. “We're not getting the straight answers we should be getting as parents.”

Her children are two of the roughly 480,000 students -- about 48% of the city’s 1 million (non-charter school) public school students -- who have been signed up by their parents and guardians for all-remote learning, with another about 520,000 (52%) students enrolled in “blended learning,” with some days in school buildings and some days remote each week.

Data from the Department of Education accumulated through September 25 shows parents of color are more likely than white parents to be cautious of in-person instruction, though there are variances among parents of color, some of which mirror the fact that Black and Hispanic New Yorkers have been disproportionately sickened and killed by COVID-19.

Of the 480,000 students enrolled in all-remote learning about 39% are Hispanic, 24% are Asian, 21% are Black, and 11% are white. According to overall public school enrollment from the 2019-2020 school year, 41% of city students were Hispanic, 22% were Black, 18% were Asian, and 16% were white. So while all-remote learning sign-ups by racial/ethnic groups is comparable to the larger student populations for Black and Hispanic enrollment, there is a significant difference for Asian and white students, with a higher proportion of Asian students and a smaller proportion of white students choosing all-remote.

Taking into account overall student enrollment figures and the remote learning data, about 64% of all Asian students in New York City’s public schools were signed up for all-remote learning to start this school year. It is about 46% of all Black students and 45% of all Hispanic students also in solely online classes, compared to about 33% of all white students. 

According to interviews with several Black, Hispanic, and Asian public school parents, their reasons for opting their children into all-remote school to start this school year range from distrust in city leaders, health and safety concerns, consistency in education, and overall low confidence in reopening school buildings.

As Mayor Bill de Blasio repeatedly pushed back the start of in-person classes for this school year, readying for the return of students for the first time since schools were shut down in March, the number of all-remote students grew steadily.

De Blasio announced a delay for the second time on September 17, saying students would return in increments, starting with the very youngest and some special needs students on September 21. Students in K-5 and K-8 schools followed, returning to classrooms on September 29, and middle and high schools opened on October 1. Despite the delays, the school year began remotely for most students on Monday, September 16.

The delay was at least in large part due to staffing shortages, according to the mayor and leaders of the teachers and principals unions. While need has been pegged at more than 10,000 additional teachers to cover all the types of classes needed and meet the requirements agreed to with the teachers union, de Blasio said the city would be hiring or otherwise finding already in city employ an additional 4,500 teachers, with more to come. The last-minute decision came after weeks of union leaders, principals, and teachers urging the city to look into adding more teachers and addressing various safety issues, and the mayor was roundly criticized for poor planning and causing upheaval for families trying to get a sense of what the new school year would be like.

De Blasio said the vast majority of New York City public school parents are from the outer boroughs and working class, and they understand the imperfect situation of school reopenings. “They are people who understand the realities of life and they’re not shocked when something this difficult has to be adjusted from time to time,” he said.

When asked specifically why he believes many more Black and Latino parents chose all-remote learning for their children, de Blasio said during a September 21 press conference that he was not surprised. “Communities of color have been hit the hardest here and have gone through hell, and if so many families have lost family members – “it makes sense that there would be a real concern and real caution,” he said. Noting that “the vast majority of our school children are from communities of color,” the mayor went on to say: “So I am not surprised at all that a lot of people wanted to start with remote out of an abundance of caution. I'm not surprised by the many, many people that want their kids back in school for many reasons, including, you know, that they have to get back to work or they really think it's best for the kids' education."

De Blasio later added, “I think some families want to see, you know, at least a month or more of evidence before they make that decision” to send their children into school buildings. “I won't be surprised if a number of families make that choice in November to come back in,” de Blasio said of the opportunity for all-remote students to be enrolled in blended learning.

A survey from August by New York Education Trust, an education policy and advocacy organization, found racial and income disparities among New York parents about school reopening amid the covid pandemic and its fallout, and leading up to the new school year. According to the survey, 66% of white parents and 68% of parents with an income of at least $50,000 approved of full or partial reopenings of in-person schooling, whereas 43% of Black parents, 57% of Latino parents, and 48% of lower-income parents supported re-starting in-person school of some kind.

“This disparity is driven by higher fears among parents of color that their child or another family member will contract coronavirus, and less overall confidence in schools,” the survey found. Non-white racial and ethnic groups in New York City have been far more likely to be victims of the virus which can be linked to why more parents of color are choosing to keep their children home as in-person school has become. People of color are more likely to live in crowded households, fill jobs as essential workers thus heightening exposure to more people, have access to worse health care, and have pre-existing health conditions that make them more susceptible to harsher consequences of the coronavirus.

The rising infection rates and risk of contracting the virus inside schools prompted Jennie Tsang, a Chinese parent from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn to keep her son all remote. “No one else in my family has to be out yet, there was no reason to just have my son getting potentially exposed,” she said. Tsang worries the procedures to keep sick children and faculty isolated are subpar. She said consistent testing makes more sense than random testing. The Department of Education “was figuring things out week by week,” Tsang said, “They had six months to plan for what reopenings would look like.”

Similarly, Stephanie Gonzalez, Hispanic mother of two and a member of the District 24 Community Education Council is also uneasy with sending her kids back to elementary school in Elmhurst, Queens due to the city’s disorganization. “It’s the same circle we’re in,” she said referring to the mayor’s delayed decision in March to close schools during the height of the pandemic and how reopening has gone.

School building ventilation continues to be a major concern for Gonzalez, although the city inspected every school at the request of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the teachers union. A hundred teams of inspectors had eight days to check ventilators, windows, fans, and ensure proper airflow throughout the classrooms and buildings. The time given to inspectors was not enough for a thorough job, Gonzalez said. The city “needs to continually check everything at least for a couple of days to make sure everything is working,” said Gonzalez, especially of the older buildings.

“Confidence in schools’ safety precautions falls along racial lines, with Black and Latinx parents less likely to be confident in the health and safety precautions their child’s school has planned for the fall,” the New York Education Trust survey found. For Tracy Gray, a Black parent who is the education chair of the Brooklyn NAACP, the decision to keep her high-schooler all-remote was due to various concerns like physical and mental health, resources for both students and staff, and protocols inside the buildings.

The time preparing to reopen schools could’ve been better spent, Gray said. “Once school ended in June, if the focus could’ve been let’s make sure everybody has everything they need for remote learning,” it would’ve been more beneficial than rushing school reopenings.

The Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group led by parents with close ties to the teachers union, agrees. “[I]f we had invested in remote learning at the outset, we would have been able to better prepare for more equitable access to remote education now,” AQE said in a statement, “providing the necessary training and materials for families, students, and educators to thrive.”

For a period of time, the state government withheld 20% of local aid including regular payments to school districts in New York due to tax revenue losses amid the coronavirus-spurred recession. After the teachers union sued Governor Andrew Cuomo over the cuts, the state announced it will make full payments for September. However, without federal funding, the governor has warned that permanent budgets cuts could be on the way. Chalkbeat reported a potential $2.3 billion cuts to city schools could be disastrous for schools and force them to return to strictly remote learning and lay off up to 9,000 teachers, according to warnings made earlier this year by city schools Chancellor Richard Carranza.

“We demand our students must not return to the old normal, the NAACP demands a new normal be developed and established where public schools do not fail children and families,” states an NAACP resolution that Gray referenced, voted through at the 111th NAACP National Convention on September 24. Demands by the NAACP include hiring teachers of color, redesigning curriculum, and public schools not reopening until there is full and equitable funding for all -- New York City is the only big city school system open to in-person learning at this point.

Schools are making the most of the resources available, but the lack of funding is leaving students at a disadvantage, according to AQE. Mental health resources is one the New York City Department of Education hasn’t yet delivered on, said Stephanie Carnegie, president of Totality of a Woman. “We cannot ignore what they have been experiencing and the trauma we have all experienced due to the pandemic,” Carnegie said during a September 25 rally in front of the DOE headquarters in Manhattan demanding parents and students of color be better included in conversations around reopening schools.

Carnegie posed a question for Mayor de Blasio and the Department of Education, asking, “What systems and plans are in place to support the mental and social-emotional well-being of students returning to school in the midst of a pandemic and social unrest?”

The DOE has put forth several plans, such as the Bridge to School initiative, aimed at helping students cope with grief, educating instructors on trauma, and more, though the city has been criticized by several advocacy groups for not being specific and thorough enough about the available services. 

At the rally, Carnegie was joined by groups such as AQE, Parents Supporting Parents NY, Real Dads Network and others Black and brown parents and children. They chanted “Whose schools? Our schools.” Speakers including leaders of advocacy groups, public school parents and students spoke about the exclusion of their voices in decisions like the structure of blended and remote learning, and called attention to their needs such as access to working laptops and wireless connection that have yet to be fully solved by the DOE.

They were joined by Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who gave a speech on the racial disparities in the educational system and called for a seat at the table for parents of color. “There is no way you’re going to move in a manner that you’re moving in and ignoring the voices of Black and brown parents that had to already go through the disproportionate reaction during COVID-19. This is a civil rights violation that is happening,” Adams said.

“Lack of consistency, lack of clarity, inability to communicate is unacceptable,” said Adams, who is running for mayor in next year’s election, who also discussed internet access in homeless shelters and services for special needs students.

Although white parents are generally more trusting of the reopening of school buildings, parents like Rebbeca West, from Astoria, Queens are doubtful. She opted for all-remote learning for her two kids due to uncertainty in the Department of Education’s reopening plans. “Once they came out with the blended model, my husband and I knew it would be super problematic,” she said. There aren't the same kind of interruptions with the all-online route, said West, who considers herself lucky because her schedule allows her to be at home with her children, though she does have her own work to do.

Consistency in education is crucial, according to Demaris Che, a Hispanic mother of two public school students learning all-online. Che said the first week of classes went well and is impressed with the support her sons are receiving and won’t be switching to blended in the coming months.

Taking public transportation to school is a major concern for her as well. “It makes no sense for me to send him to school if he is going to get the same education at home,” Che said of one of her kids. “With in-person learning, students are not getting one consistent teacher, which shifted me away from the hybrid model.”

Hybrid students attend in-person classes one to three times a week and can switch to remote at any point of the school-year. All-remote students will have certain times during the year when their parents can switch them into blended learning, starting in November when de Blasio said he expected to see an influx of those who see attending school in-person is safe.

By Afia Eama, Gotham Gazette

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