In the spring of 2020, with Maryland’s stay-at-home order lifted, a new ritual was born on a cul-de-sac in North Baltimore’s affluent Homeland neighborhood. A group of moms gathered on Friday evenings to commiserate about the sudden pivot to remote learning. Seated in physically distanced chairs under a maple tree, Annette Anderson and her friends talked about the stresses of managing their own jobs while overseeing their children’s schoolwork. As summer arrived, the weekly conversations turned to speculation over the Baltimore City Public Schools plan for reopening in the fall. Other moms were clearly ready to turn their children back over to full-time teachers. But Anderson was a firm no.
The Black mother of three had watched her children blossom during the spring semester. Freed from transporting three teens—a sophomore, an eighth-grader, and a seventh-grader— to athletic games and extracurriculars, Anderson (no relation to me) was more engaged in their lives, and her children were thriving academically, more attuned to their online classes and more self-directed in their learning. She was also skeptical that Baltimore schools had figured out how to do in-person instruction safely. As the deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools, she spends her days giving policymakers the tools to make evidence-based decisions. Conflicting research on safely reopening schools, coupled with a lack of direction from the federal level, told her it was better to sit this one out.
“At the same time that people were talking about reopening, we were seeing [covid-19] case numbers go up astronomically,” she recalled. “There was no clear guidance. It was just, ‘Trust us, send the kids back, and it’ll be okay.’” When Anderson queried other Black families to see how they were feeling, she discovered she was not alone.
Few issues this year have been as rife with division and drama as the on-again, off-again efforts of school districts to restart in-person learning. President Biden vowed to open most public schools in his first 100 days—but his pledge was quickly scaled back to only a majority of elementary schools. Both Republican and Democratic governors have directed schools to open; teachers' unions have balked at returning until the staff is vaccinated, and parents across the political spectrum have protested and petitioned to resume in-person learning. Citing the need to reduce covid-related learning gaps and provide working parents some relief, education systems sought to bring at least some younger students back to classrooms.
Amid the fierce debate, Black parents across the country have largely resisted the push to return to public schools. According to a December report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 62 percent of white parents agreed that schools should reopen this fall, while less than half of Black parents agreed. In a Pew Research survey conducted in mid-February, Black adults were the most likely of all racial groups to worry about the health risks of reopening—80 percent wanted kids to stay remote until teachers were vaccinated, while only 51 percent of white adults felt the same.
And no wonder: The pandemic has dealt a disproportionately heavy blow to Black Americans. According to CDC data published in September, Black youth accounted for 29 percent of covid-19 deaths among people under 21, twice the percentage for white youth. The agency also found Black children under 18 at a significantly higher risk of hospitalization—almost four times higher than white children and teens.
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