President Joe Biden is pushing for K-8 schools to fully reopen in his first 100 days. But don’t look for Omeisha Snape’s kids in the classrooms.
The New York City mother made the decision to keep her six children home in the fall when given the option of some in-person learning, and she’s heard nothing to change her mind about continuing remote learning for the rest of the school year.
Other parents, though, have joined lawsuits to force schools to fully open their doors, illustrating a divide that often breaks down along racial lines. The reticence of large numbers of parents who are skeptical of schools' ability to keep their children safe complicates reopening plans for districts that also are weighing other factors including resistance of teachers unions and the logistics involved in keeping up social distancing.
“Absolutely not. They’re not going,” said Snape. She said her children have adjusted well to distance learning, while staying safe from the coronavirus.
If they returned to their charter school, there is no guarantee they would have their current teachers, while the masks, distancing and hand sanitizing would be a challenge, said Snape, who is Black. Not to mention the uniforms she would have to buy for the waning few weeks of school that would be left in the year.
Her 13-year-old daughter did recently return to the building part-time, Snape said, but only because she didn’t feel her teacher was responsive online.
Many other parents feel just the opposite.
Christina Maley Higley has been advocating for a full reopening of schools, citing among other reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics’ statements that in-person learning does not seem to significantly increase community transmission of the virus.
“I’m glad (the President is) saying that but it needed to have been done months ago,” Higley said. She is homeschooling her first-, fourth- and sixth-grade children this year because she found the hybrid model offered in her suburban Webster, New York district — in-person some days, online on others — too disruptive.
Teachers unions have said they support the idea as long as COVID-19 mitigation strategies are in place to make the buildings safer, but they need the $130 billion included in Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan to make it happen.
It will take that and more for many parents to feel comfortable, said Keri Rodrigues, a Latina mother of five in Somerville, Massachusetts.
As president of the grassroots National Parents Union, Rodrigues pressed the Biden Administration to embrace the reopening plan for the academic and emotional well-being of students. But she said there is much work to be done to convince parents, especially Black and brown families who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus, that their children will be safe.
Black, Hispanic and Native American people are dying from COVID-19 at almost three times the rate of white people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Polling by the National Parents Union, which represents many parents of color and low-income parents, has found about 40% of families are not ready to send their children back to school and roughly the same number are either unwilling or unsure about having them vaccinated.
"There’s a definite correlation,” Rodrigues said.
“There are 40% of families saying we don’t trust these systems at all because they don’t do right by our kids on a good day,” Rodrigues said. “We don’t have toilet paper. We don’t have running water. We don’t have soap on a good day. Now, you’re telling us that you’re going to have PPE and disinfectants and you’ve got us covered? No, you don’t. So just like trust is earned, mistrust is also earned.”
A CDC report in December similarly found that racial and ethnic minority parents were more concerned about some aspects of school reopening than white parents, including that mitigation measures wouldn't be followed and the possibility their children would bring the virus home with them.
In New York City public schools, where 66% of students are Hispanic or Black, the Snape children are among the vast majority of students who, when given a choice to attend school part-time, chose remote-only.
In contrast, a questionnaire in the small, majority white Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, school district found 77% of elementary school parents would send their children to school five days a week if offered, according to a Feb. 15 presentation to the school board.
Philadelphia schools sent an enrollment survey to parents of nearly 28,000 pre-kindergarten through second-grade students in November, of whom about a third favored the hybrid model, a quarter intended to keep their children virtual, and the remainder, 43%, did not make a choice.
Teachers and some parents say they don’t trust the district, given its poor track record abating environmental problems like lead, asbestos and mold in school buildings. Many have ridiculed the district’s plan to install plastic window fans, which are attached to plywood, in more than 1,000 classrooms to boost air flow.
Fully remote since last March, the district had been set to resume some in-person instruction next week. But ongoing mediation between the school district and the teachers union over the district’s safety plan will force another delay, Superintendent William Hite said Wednesday.
Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said too many school buildings remain unsafe for occupancy, citing a lack of ventilation.
“While we all want our children to return to school sooner than later, we are not willing to sacrifice their health and safety to give them a false sense of normalcy,” said Brandy Stewart, president of the home and school association at Philadelphia’s Powel Elementary.
Claire Murphy, the parent of a Philadelphia kindergarten student, said her daughter needs to be in a classroom.
“My very social 5-year-old is honestly really struggling emotionally with staying home, not being able to go to school,” she said. “I really don’t think we can make it until next fall and miss kindergarten completely.”
Rodrigues herself reluctantly enrolled two of her children in a private school just last week after seeing them reach a breaking point with remote learning.
“Even though I am terrified of the virus and I do not trust that we have this covered and the coronavirus, that my kids are going to be safe from it, watching my third-grader get up last Monday morning and at 8 o’clock in the morning, being on the verge of tears, dreading his life," she said. “As a mom, there comes a tipping point where my fear of the virus versus my fear of losing my kids.”
Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam contributed from northeastern Pennsylvania.