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‘It’s the Best Thing for Him’: Many Parents of Color Choose to Send Their Children Back to School Buildings

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Children at school (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

While parents of color have been less likely to send their children into New York City school buildings when they reopened amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, thousands of Black, Hispanic, and Asian students recently completed their first month of blended learning, which includes at least one day per week of in-person school.

When nearly all public school buildings reopened on October 1, after the city’s second round of delays, about half the city’s 1 million students had opted for all-remote learning, meaning the other half were enrolled in the blended model. Two weeks after reopening, about 40,000 students switched to all-remote learning, leaving city officials to estimate that about 46% of total student enrollment was on the books for some in-person learning. 

But the city reported that just over 280,000 students attended in-person classes in October, about 180,000 lower than the Department of Education’s estimate, based on last year’s enrollment data. The number of students that have attended some in-person school has since jumped to over 300,000.

The gap could be due to the Department of Education making the blended model the default, whereby parents had to opt their children into remote-only, and assuming those who didn’t actively choose all-remote would return to school buildings. It could also be in part due to a drop in total enrollment since estimates are being calculated using the previous year’s data and enrollment for the school year has yet to be released, even two months into the new school year.

Throughout the school reopening process, Mayor Bill de Blasio has stressed safety protocols being put into place and encouraged parents to enroll in the blended model. He has repeatedly reiterated that there is no replacement for in-person learning and explained that despite a number of hiccups and delays and major questions about staffing and the quality of instruction kids are receiving, parents should strongly consider sending their children back to school buildings.

But most parents of color, whose children de Blasio said he was most focused on given barriers and challenges they so often face, largely kept their kids home. Some said they did not trust the Department of Education, while others referenced health and safety concerns or consistency in education. Asked about the trend, de Blasio said he understood the wariness given how badly the coronavirus has ravaged the city, especially communities of color, but against stressed safety measures in place, including mask mandates, small class sizes, and more.

Yet at the same time many thousands of parents of color have decided to send their children back into school buildings. Parents Gotham Gazette spoke with cited reasons including the value of face-to-face instruction, additional care for students with disabilities, and trust in the teachers and schools.  

“The goal here, when everything is said and done, is to ensure that everyone has the right plan for their child,” the mayor said on November 5 at a press conference. “And really, it's either to be an all-remote or to be in blended learning, but we want real participation in blended learning. So, we'll be talking more in the days to come about how to make sure that every child who is in blended learning is getting that maximum opportunity to participate.”

De Blasio did go on to regularly make the case, and opened a window for parents to switch their children from all-remote to blended, but just as he was repeatedly pitching that opportunity the city’s covid positivity numbers were increasing, and the entire school system is now on the verge of going all-remote due to increases in the coronavirus positivity rate. That prospect has alarmed many parents whose children are attending some in-person school, and there are calls for the mayor to reconsider the threshold for school building closure -- 3% covid test positivity citywide on a seven-day rolling average -- that he set with the teachers union, but the mayor said Thursday he plans to stick with it.

Attendance, Enrollment and a Transfer Period
Overall city school attendance was about 85% for both remote and blended students, compared to 91.6% during the pre-coronavirus days, according to numbers released by the mayor at a press conference on October 26. Being marked present for remote learning days means students are attending virtual lessons or are completing asynchronous work. 

“Given the pandemic and the extraordinary amount of upheaval – that's not a bad number, but we want that number to go up,” de Blasio said of the attendance figures at the press conference.

According to the enrollment from the 2019-2020 school year, 41% of city students were Hispanic, 22% were Black, 18% were Asian, and 16% were white. Based on calculations using city data, about 72% of Asian students, 54% of Black students, 52% of Hispanic students, and 40% of white students are currently enrolled in all-remote education, with the complementary percentages doing blended learning (for example: 60% of white students are returning to school buildings). 

Mayor de Blasio and City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza recently changed course and announced that remote students now have one opportunity to opt into blended learning for the remainder of the school year, ongoing from November 2-14. The move was criticized by many parents and elected officials, but the mayor defended eliminating what he said would be quarterly opportunities to shift from remote to blended (students can move to all-remote from blended at any time).

“Parents have a lot more information and I understand any parent that wanted more information before making a choice – well, now that we've been able to show how our schools are working, it's time for an opt-in period,” the mayor said. “It's time to give parents and kids a chance to come back into school if they're all remote right now.” 

Although the mayor expects an increase in blended students in the upcoming weeks, a survey by Education Trust-New York, an education policy and advocacy organization, found parents of color and parents from low-income households that chose remote learning are less likely to consider the switch in the city. About 44% of parents of color and 50% of parents from low-income households have not even considered the blended model, compared to 10% of white parents and 28% of higher-income families. 

From parents of color who have considered the switch, “the driving factor was the social aspect – wanting their child to be able to socially interact with their peers and teachers, followed by the fear that their child is not meeting the academic expectations for their grade level,” the survey stated. 

Black and Hispanic parents, from the same neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus, are more likely to be concerned with their children’s health, the survey states. The City reported Black and Hispanic people died at twice the rate of white and Asain New Yorkers during the height of the virus. About 66% of parents of color surveyed for Education Trust-New York said their child or another family member contracting the virus is at the top of their mind; that number was 60% for white parents.

Positive experiences in schools’ handling of the virus is lower for parents of color and parents from low-income households, with 67-70% rating it positive compared to 82% of white parents. 

During October, the positivity rate via tests conducted within the school system was 0.14%, significantly below low citywide numbers, though those numbers have been creeping up of late and the city school system will shut down if the citywide 7-day rolling average positivity rate hits 3%. That number was at 2.21% per data released Monday by the mayor.

Low satisfaction with remote learning is also apparent among remote learning parents, with about half of surveyed parents rating it as successful. Low ratings are “mainly driven by parents of color – especially Latinx parents. While 69% of parents rate remote learning as better than last spring, Black parents are less likely to agree (56%),” the survey states. 

Several weeks into the new school year, New York City parents are positive about their schools’ handling of the coronavirus but are not finding remote learning successful. 

Additionally, there is low satisfaction with remote learning overall and among parents of color. Only 40% of parents rate remote learning as successful (ratings of 8-10 on a 0-10 scale, an additional 20% of parents say their child is not participating in remote learning right now) – meaning just half (51%) of parents of remote learners rate it as successful. Low satisfaction ratings for remote learning are mainly driven by parents of color – especially Latinx parents. While 69% of parents rate remote learning as better than last spring, Black parents are less likely to agree (56%). 

According to interviews with Black and Hispanic parents of students enrolled in blended learning, fears of contracting the virus exist, but they made their choices based on factors such as having children with disabilities who require additional support, precautionary measures to avoid and limit virus spread, confidence in schools and teachers, and the opportunity for their children to receive face-to-face instruction and socialization with their peers. 

When asked about the fate of special needs schools shutdown in the red zones at a October 28 press conference, the mayor said, “when we opened our public schools, the first thing we did was focused on our school programs for special needs kids, our District 75 schools, because, unquestionably, this is where the in-person learning has the biggest impact and there's the greatest need. And I feel for the families, for sure – they’re dealing with so many struggles to begin with, we have to be responsive to them.”

‘It’s the Best Thing for Him’ 
Nafheema Miley, a Black mother living in Washington Heights, enrolled her autistic son in pre-kindergarten four months before the pandemic prompted public schools to go all-remote. Miley saw progress in her son, who is non-verbal and attends Mickey Mantle, a special education school in the Upper West Side. But during months at home due to the coronavirus shutdown, he regressed. 

When Miley heard about the blended learning model, she said she made the hardest decision of her life. “If I did not let him go, it would be more damaging to him,” she said, “he needs certain things I cannot give him at home and needs to be in a social environment.” Due to a large number of all-remote students at the school, her son can attend in-person Monday through Friday, which Miley is grateful for. 

Fears of contracting the virus are there but Miley isn’t as concerned because she so trusts her son’s teacher. “I wouldn’t say I trust the school per se but I trust his teacher,” she said, “we have a good relationship and text a lot so if he’s cranky, she lets me know.” Including the teacher, there is also a speech therapist and occupational therapist present for the class of eight kids, she said. 

Miley said her son has taken several big steps this past month due to attending school five days a week. He drank from a cup for the first time and tried new foods at school. “It’s the environment and the way his teacher does things,” she said. He is also trying to communicate more, she said. “I was trying to teach him to say bottle and he’ll say ‘bababa,’” she said, “before he would get aggravated but now he’s really trying to put certain words and sounds together.” 

Her son has been happier since going back to school, she said, “it’s the best thing for him.” But, “if my son wasn’t in special needs, he would’ve done remote learning, it would’ve been no question,” Miley said. 

‘No Week is the Same’ 
Wendy Sanchez, a Hispanic mother of four -- an infant girl at home, two boys in elementary school, and one boy in pre-kindergarten -- enrolled her three boys in blended instruction because they require personalized learning accommodations, known as IEPs or individualized education plans, and are on the autism spectrum. The resources, opportunities, and quality of care affected her decision in sending them in-person but the blended model has been difficult thus far. 

Sanchez’s son in pre-K requires occupational therapy, which helps those with physical, sensory, or cognitive problems and doesn’t translate well via Zoom. However, at her two older sons’ elementary school, P.S. 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens, the entire OT department is working remote. “That is the one therapy he needs,” she said. Sanchez recently appealed to the principal to get the school to hire an in-person therapist. 

She said the therapists provided by the school aren’t trained in virtual therapy, which created a lag in quality counseling. Through her insurance, she was able to hire trained therapists to assist her kids, she said. 

Homeschooling and managing up to 30 Zoom meetings between therapies and classes among her three sons has become a full-time job for her and her husband, who is currently not working to support their children's education. Adapt Community Network Clearview School, Sanchez’s youngest son’s school, went all-remote two weeks after reopening, after falling in a “yellow” state covid cluster zone in Flushing, Queens. “It was very sudden,” she said, “We found out while waiting for the bus, they didn’t even give us prior notice.” The school has since reopened, in early November. 

The remote days are stressful because grabbing the attention of young children who are naturally distracted is very hard, Sanchez said. During the in-person school days, children are surrounded by sensory items, which has been challenging to recreate at home. “We lack space to give all three of them room for virtual learning and exercises,” she said, “no week is the same.” Sanchez said they recently purchased a small trampoline. 

Although her eldest son’s IEP was cut last year due to improvement, Sanchez is in the process of establishing a 504 plan, which is also about learning accommodations, but says she has received no help from the school. Recently, he was tested for COVID-19, Sanchez said, “he came home crying and screaming because he felt violated that somebody probed something up his nose. For a child with disabilities, that’s scary.” 

‘Department of Education Got It Right’ 
With three sons, one in high school and two in elementary, Lude Bonnet, a Black mother from Belmont in the Bronx, had what she described as an OK remote learning experience during the Spring, when all schools were shut down to in-person instruction.

Bonnet noticed a change in her boys since they started remote learning in March, she said, in that staying home hurt their socialization improvement and social skills. “They needed access to more people, authority, and the norm that they are used to,” she said. With some in-person school via the blended learning model, the quality of their education is higher because they have more access to learning life skills such as interacting with classmates and respecting authority, she said. Her youngest son has an IEP and prioritizing his services also factored into her decision. 

This past month went well, according to Bonnet, “seeing their teachers smile and be proud of them, all of those things make a difference for them.” Her sons in elementary school are doing well academically and enjoying activities offered in their after-school program. 

Bonnet has a good deal of confidence in both the DOE and the two schools, Bronx Collaborative High School and P.S.59. “When I say they support, I feel like I’m calling my big sister, [or] my aunty sometimes,” she said. The two public schools have maintained communication with Bonnet and supported her kids’ education, she said. “I want my kids to be the example of how the [DOE] got it right,” Bonnet said. 

‘It Was His Decision’ 
Full-remote learning was Angie Torres’ preliminary thought for her high school-aged son, but when blended learning was announced, her 15-year old was beyond excited to return to his school. 

As a Hispanic mother working from home in Astoria, Queens, with another kid in a charter school and a baby, Torres has concerns that her high-schooler could contract the virus, especially when riding the subway, and bring it home. “It was his decision,” Torres said, “with the agreement that he would be driven and picked up so he is not riding public transportation.” (There has been no evidence that the subway is leading to any covid spread.)

Torres said her son’s decision was a combination of becoming his own person by making his own decisions and getting out of the house. She keeps a close eye on infection rates both in the city and her neighborhood and will enroll her son in all-remote instruction if cases spike. 

When he returned from his first day, “I saw he was happy,” Torres said. The look on his face yelled, “I did something, I achieved something, I got out of the house.” 

Torres said she felt relieved when she heard social distancing was implemented throughout the building and there are only five kids in his classroom. His schedule is the same for both remote and in-person days, and he is handling the blended model well, she said. She and her husband alternate work shifts to support their children at home.

By Afia Eama, Gotham Gazette

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