If their school building reopened tomorrow, these families wouldn’t send their children back.
For Jacquetta McGowen, a mom in Federal Way, online school lets her intervene if a teacher says something demeaning to her son, who is Black — like the time he was labeled a “troublemaker” simply because of the clothes he was wearing.
For Shereese Rhodes, the online experience in Kent hasn’t been stellar. But at least her 10-year-old daughter, who is also Black, is no longer vomiting from anxiety before the start of the school day.
For Jenny Pigott, keeping her son — who has asthma — out of Kent schools means protecting him from COVID, and comes with a bonus — he’s doing better than ever while learning online.
And for Shawn Peterson, a single mom with two kids in Seattle, juggling work and her children’s online schooling is hard, but better than possibly contributing to coronavirus spread, which has hit her Native community hard.
The polarizing debate over how and when to reopen schools has revolved around an argument that children — especially students of color — do better when they’re learning in school buildings. But some families are pushing back against that idea, finding that their children are doing just as well, and sometimes better, when learning from the safety of their own homes. Not because online learning has been great, but because in-person school was awful.
In cities nationwide that have resumed in-person learning, white families are significantly overrepresented among those who return. This divide is yet another example of how the pandemic is playing out in a dramatically different way for different groups.
“Nobody knows the needs of families of color better than families of color,” said Maki Park, whose child attends Dearborn Park International School in Seattle.
If many families permanently exit the public school system, that could upend school finances because schools receive funding based on the number of students who enroll. And it could result in a system that’s more racially segregated than it was before COVID.
School surveys show that families of color are less likely to want to return immediately. In January, a Seattle Public Schools survey found that of families with kids in pre-K through first grades, 46.8% preferred in-person learning. Over half of white families wanted to return — but just one-third of Black, Asian and Pacific Islander families said they did.
That same month, Lake Washington School District — the second-largest district in the state — surveyed elementary school parents and found that while 63% of white parents preferred in-person learning, roughly 30% of Asian and American Indian/Alaska Native families did. More than half of Lake Washington’s Black families, who constitute 2% of the district’s enrollment, said they prefer school in-person. Highline School District posted similar results.
Some families say they’re reluctant to return because education leaders are missing an opportunity to tackle problems that have long been baked into public schools, such as implicit bias among teachers or inequitable school discipline policies.
“It’s incredibly important to make sure we’re taking a holistic view and not using patronizing language when we talk about meeting their needs,” said Park. “And most of all, when we talk about their needs, we’re referring to their voices and not centering the voices of privilege.”
Rhodes said her daughter often feels invisible in school. “A lot of my African American community doesn’t want to go back because we already had mistrust of the school system,” Rhodes said. “You want us to come back into a situation that’s extremely traumatic without first fixing the problems. … It’s hard to keep putting your kid in a school system where they feel constantly dehumanized.”
To keep families like Rhodes’ enrolled — and to avoid creating a school system that’s further segregated by race — districts will need to provide long-term virtual options, choices that don’t shortchange those who choose to stay home.
A year ago, many education leaders saw an opening. Maybe, if a pandemic could change the structure of school, so could a national reckoning over systemic racism following George Floyd’s death.
Now, some are disappointed that it didn’t happen.
Regina Elmi, who leads the nonprofit Supporting Partnerships in Education and Beyond, said that’s one of the reasons she’s not sending her kids back in Renton. “I don’t feel confident enough that we are going to go into what families are saying: We want an anti-racist practice and culture in our schools,” she said.
In early 2020, as the pandemic hit, Bernadette Merikle, who runs the nonprofit Community Center for Education Results, received what felt like endless invitations to talk about transforming education. A few weeks later, superintendents said they liked Merikle’s ideas, but “All we have capacity for is just starting up the basic way we were doing education before.”
The message Merikle heard: It’s great you want to transform education, but we can’t build a new system while reviving the one that’s been stalled at the side of the road.
The time has come, Merikle said, to abandon that car. To get a whole new car.
“When we talk to our Black parents, a lot of them talk about their kids feeling loved and supported: ‘I don’t have to deal with the microaggressions. I’m not dealing with all of the racism I’m (usually) dealing with on a day-to-day basis.’”
Merikle is worried that schools are so concerned about physical safety that they lose sight of the fact that they weren’t effectively serving large swaths of the population before COVID-19.
“It’s time to come to that realization: A global pandemic could be that point, I thought,” Merikle said. “Turns out it wasn’t. That’s the most disappointing thought of 2020.”
For families who opt out, districts are providing a range of options. In a survey, the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that most district leaders aimed to keep a remote option available long-term.
Highline Public Schools recently announced it was creating a new virtual academy in September for students in grade 6 to 12. It’s “not a short-term school or learning plan and is not a response to the ongoing pandemic,” its website states.
And a handful of school districts offer virtual education programs, including some that are funded by taxpayers but operated by for-profit companies. At least 6,000 more Washington students choose for-profit online programs this school year than last. And overall, enrollment in a set of public alternatives — called Alternative Learning Experiences — spiked by at least 35%.
Racism in schools
Jacquetta McGowen wouldn’t tell you that her son, a shy, athletic kid, is thriving in online school.
But at least he’s learning something, waking himself up on time, disappearing into a Zoom box every day. He’s doing well enough that she’s considering enrolling him in a virtual academy permanently, even though he’d miss sports.
“It’s sad that I say this, but he can hide behind that black screen,” she said. “He can tell me about a situation before it gets out of hand.”
In second grade, a resource teacher embarrassed him in front of his friends — instead of helping him solve a math problem, the teacher said it’s something he should already know. The teacher never apologized.
A few years ago, an educator told her son: “I can already tell you’re a troublemaker because of your clothing.”
The pandemic has made incidents like this more visible to parents, said Ann Ishimaru, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s College of Education. “Now they are behind the screen with their child as well, and they see how their kids are being treated, how the teacher is interacting with them,” she said. “As much as folks are supportive and invested in public education, they aren’t going to allow their children to continue to be harmed.”
McGowen appreciates Zoom because if things happen, she’s usually around to step in.
She’s also looking for reasons to send her son back to school when he’s eligible in Federal Way. But between concerns about physical safety and these past incidents, she said, “the negative is winning.”
McGowen, a home health aide who lives in low-income housing, skipped the opportunity to work full time when she saw how two students — one Black, one white — were disciplined differently at her son’s school. She then regularly started spending time in the school, trying to make sure it didn’t happen again. “I work to make sure he’s not racially profiled,” she said.
She has had three kids go through Federal Way Public Schools, including her eighth grade son. That whole time, they’ve only had three or four Black teachers, she said.
Similarly, Rhodes, in Kent, said her 10-year-old daughter hasn’t yet had a single Black teacher. The only interactions she had with a Black educator, Rhodes said, were for disciplinary purposes. For years, her daughter would tell her she was treated differently in the classroom. “Now I can hear it and witness it,” she said. “The teacher’s tone, and how she responds to certain things.” Rhodes called the principal and helped her get a new teacher this quarter. It’s been somewhat better.
She’ll keep her daughter in online public schools as long as it’s offered. After that, she’ll continue to lean on a cousin with a teaching credential and a tutoring service.
McGowen would feel safe returning her son to school when she knows more about how long the COVID vaccines remain effective, and once all teachers go through mandatory diversity training. For Rhodes, it’s an open question.
A different kind of safety issue is making parents of children with health issues rethink what it means to go to school.
A few weeks ago, when her daughter was exposed to COVID-19, Jenny Pigott temporarily moved her sons out of the family home to their grandparents’ house. One of the boys, who is 17, has asthma. Last time he caught a cough, it took him a month to recover. The family didn’t want to chance him getting infected with coronavirus, given his risks.
Pigott calls her family “fortunate” since the 17-year-old is excelling while learning at home. He has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and struggles to stay on task. But remote learning is different: His teachers post all his assignments online, easing the headache of losing track. “He’s had the best grades of his life this year,” Pigott said.
When the conversation about eventually returning came up, Pigott and her husband asked him what he thought. “We didn’t tell him what we were leaning toward. He said he kind of wants to go back, but he also kinda doesn’t because he doesn’t want to get (COVID-19).”
Elmi had a similar conversation with her 8-year-old and was relieved when her child said, “Mommy, I miss my friends … and I don’t want to get sick.” That was her daughter’s way of saying she doesn’t feel comfortable, Elmi said. “They feel a sense of, something is not right,” she said.
Maki Park, a consultant, and her partner, who works in tech, are grateful they can work from home. And Park quickly admits their family has other privileges.
Her first-grade daughter is enrolled in her school’s Spanish immersion program, which keeps students together for years at a time. Her daughter didn’t face the challenge of building new relationships during pandemic learning, making remote learning more tolerable.
Among the reasons her daughter will stay home: The girl’s teachers aren’t ready to return.
“At a baseline, I would want to hear that the teachers — and that includes the teachers union — reached this decision to go back in good faith,” she said. “Our child’s education is only going to be as good as our teachers’ well-being, and we feel it’s really important to act in solidarity with our school community.”
Park isn’t alone in her concern.
Shawn Peterson, who lives in Greenwood with her first- and fourth-grade sons, often works 40 hours a week while trying to keep her youngest on task. Some days, her boys join her when she’s working as the youth program manager for the Na’ah Illahee Fund, a nonprofit Native organization.
The family has seen firsthand how the pandemic has hit their community, and they spend time delivering food boxes and packing up supplies for families in need.
Peterson says that responsibility to her community also drives her commitment to keeping her boys home.
“Within the Native community, we are dying at higher rates than a majority of the population,” she said. “I can think of myself as just me and my kids, but we’re part of a greater community … if that means staying home and it’s a little harder, I’m OK with that.”