Adding Nuance to School Reopening Plans during COVID-19

Examining Racial Inequality Within and Between Districts

Note: This blog is a follow-up to our August report published at the Center for Education and Civil Rights. You can find that here:

In 2020, as school boards around the country weighed the public health and education concerns brought on by COVID-19, we observed that districts were developing vastly different reopening plans for the fall. The distinctions between these plans were especially apparent when compared to the similarities observed between districts in mid-March, a time when virtually all districts decided to close. School districts were in a difficult bind approaching fall, with constantly changing guidance and unequal resources to implement either in-person or remote learning options. Many of the largest districts decided to start remote—so much so that there was a shortage of commonly-used devices like Chromebooks. Others decided to start in-person, though each created their own procedures for how they would monitor cases and amend course as needed. Some of these districts were forced to quickly change course due to infections in the school or community, or staffing shortages, creating chaotic experiences for teachers and students and uncertainty for parents.

In comparing the proposed reopening plans for Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts in summer 2020, we found staggering racial disparities. While the overwhelming majority of PA's Black and Hispanic students live in districts that chose to return to school in all-virtual formats, the majority of White students had the option of in-person instruction by way of a full or hybrid return to schools. Our aim in publishing these findings in August was not to endorse a specific reopening plan or to fault individual districts who were making necessary health decisions, but to highlight a stark example of structural inequity and to recommend pathways for redress. We believed that these differences reflected not just the differential spread of the virus and the way it impacted communities of color more significantly but also the fact that these districts, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, had differential resources and abilities to, for example, accommodate the increased spacing needed for physical distancing or to afford the cost of updating ventilation systems. Thus, existing inequalities affected the inequality with which districts responded to the pandemic.

We are now well into the 2020-21 school year and districts continue to reassess their mode of instruction as more information is learned about COVID-19 and the utility of mitigation efforts, early findings about students’ participation and learning in remote schooling, the recent steep rises in cases across the country, and the onset of colder weather limiting some safety measures (e.g., outdoor learning, open windows). Even the promising news of the COVID-19 vaccine approval and roll out is tempered by it being approved for people 16 and older, excluding most children in K-12 schools, much less early childhood education. These trends affect children and youth’s academic, social and health outcomes as well as their families and their larger community, so it is important to attend carefully to what is happening.

Virtually every district who opted for in-person learning in the fall also offered families a remote option. While we found demographic differences in what options different districts provided to families, we were unable to obtain aggregated data specifying which families selected each option. Nevertheless, patterns that we see from large districts suggest that there are racially disproportionate choices being made within districts in addition to the differences we reported between districts. As such, our initial findings—and others—may understate the extent to which students are experiencing different schooling options and opportunities during the pandemic. This has implications for districts’ efforts to ameliorate the effects of the pandemic on students once the pandemic is over.

We report on four large districts here: three of our nation’s largest urban districts, New York City, Washington D.C., and Chicago, and one of the larger suburban districts outside Washington DC.

  • In NYC , 12,000 more White students returned to school in-person than Black students. Overall , White students comprise 15.1% of the district’s enrollment while Black students are 25.5% of the enrollment.
  • In Washington, D.C., the majority of parents in neighborhoods with the highest percentage of Black students favor remote learning, while the majority of parents in neighborhoods with the highest percentage of White students support in-person learning. DC Public Schools are currently on track to begin in-person learning on February 1 with remote options still in place. While this solution supposedly meets the desires of both sets of parents, teachers’ attention will now be divided between their in-person and remote learners.
  • According to data released by Chicago Public Schools (CPS ), 37% of eligible preK-8 students indicated they would take advantage of in-person schooling options in 2021. In a district that is 10.8% White, 23.4% of students who plan to return are White. White students chose to return at a rate (67.5%) that was twice as high as Latino (31%) or Black (34%) students.
  • Montgomery County, MD just pushed back reopening until February 1 due to spiking numbers, but White and Asian students are more likely to opt into some in-person (about half of enrollment).

Smaller districts reflect these trends too. Over 90% of students at an elementary school in a suburban Chicago district that is 80% White returned, while just a quarter of students at another district elementary school that is 8% White returned. These findings are likely reflected in districts across the country, but accurate data about these racial gaps is difficult to find.

These findings are not surprising given persistent racial differences among parents about school reopening. A recent CDC study reported that non-White parents were much more concerned about school reopening, both because they were concerned about full adherence to mitigation strategies and because of concerns that their children would get sick and/or transmit COVID to family members. Some teachers and scholars are emphasizing the fact that an in-person return to school is the result of districts catering to White parents; it is not, they insist, about equity even if cloaked in arguments citing the need to return to in-person instruction for children from low-income households and/or other potentially vulnerable groups of students. In some districts that have chosen to delay in-person learning, superintendents and school board members have suffered threats from their community members, residents from whom districts in the near future may need to request additional financial support in the face of declining tax revenue. In effect, many districts are left struggling to balance the demands of both parents and educators .

Finally, we see some data suggestive—but by no means certain—of students moving away from public school districts. First, there have been sharper than normal declines in enrollment in districts, which may reflect a rise in cyber or private school options as well as increased homeschooling . As one example, while Philadelphia’s public school district has not reopened for any in-person schooling, a private school in center city Philadelphia started in-person; its nearly $30,000 tuition provided ample resources to implement virus mitigation strategies. Second, in Pennsylvania, there was a 62% increase in cyber charter school enrollment . Third, in some states, private schools have opened in-person while public schools were remote, and there is some evidence that parents, in an effort to secure in-person instruction for their children, have pushed private schools beyond normal enrollment numbers . Moreover, Pennsylvania refused to provide relief to a state law requiring that districts provide bus transportation to private school students residing within their boundaries even if the public school was remote. Indeed, despite the inequity in which students would return in-person reported above, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials argued that the greater cause of educational inequity would be for CPS to remain fully remote for public school students while private schools in the city provided in-person schooling.

Although COVID has arguably prompted these shifts in enrollment, it’s far from clear that these trends will reverse post-vaccination. Thus, COVID has emphasized already existing inequalities between students and systems. The full extent of the effect of the pandemic won’t be fully known for quite some time. In effect, appropriate governmental responses will have to be systemic and long-term ; one-off stimulus packages, while needed to address immediate and personal needs, won’t address the unequal ways our system of public education unevenly helped to address the academic, social, and emotional needs of developing children and youth in this period. While the federal COVID relief package just passed by Congress includes funding for K-12 public schools (alongside some funding for private schools) that are facing current and pending financial pressures while also dealing with public health and educational challenges, it will not be enough to address the many needs facing our nation’s youngest. It is within that context that we share the following recommendations for policymakers and educators to consider in 2021.

  • We need to prioritize public health measures in communities to reduce transmission, thereby supporting schools. This is especially important as the country begins to administer the vaccine and as a new strain of COVID-19 that has spread more rapidly, including among children, has been reported in the U.S. A premature sense of security and pandemic fatigue and relaxed precautions will jeopardize any future progress in reducing community spread to levels where in-person schooling may feel safer for all families and teachers.
  • We need better data to fully track what is going on right now and to provide a nuanced, complete evidence base to make school opening and/or closing decisions. Difficult decisions balancing health and educational needs are made harder when based on skewed or incomplete data . This is a role that state and federal departments of education could undertake, given their other responsibilities of data collection and dissemination.
  • We need to make sure, particularly where districts are offering multiple options, that remote learning is culturally responsive and as robust as possible. This begins by ensuring district-wide access to internet. Jackson, Michigan has creatively equipped district school busses with WiFi antennas to meet this need, which underscores the result of a lack of investment in building broadband infrastructure. This is a key way in which the private sector could help schools respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The most vulnerable students in each school district have first priority for any in-person learning option, if they want it, where distancing requirements limit capacity.
  • We need to start planning NOW for how to address the emotional and academic gaps students will be left with when the pandemic is over, particularly for minoritized children . For example, Richmond Public Schools has already begun considering ways to add more days and/or time to the summer or future academic years.
  • Schools need more funding for health professionals. In 2015-16, only 82% of schools had at least one half-time nurse, and only 52% had a full-time nurse ; the percentage was lower in schools with the highest percentage of students from low-income families. These staff are essential now in implementing schools’ health and safety plans, including potentially helping to conduct contact tracing. But, as seen, even in non-pandemic times, they can play a crucial role in ensuring the health and well-being of all school community members.
  • We need to create the infrastructure to implement wraparound services that extend beyond the parameters of public schools. These services are needed now, in the short-term, to enable compliance with public health measures, and they will be needed in the post-vaccination, in the long-term, to support schools’ effort s to address students’ academic, mental, and social needs.
  • Districts have long needed much more support in navigating this, not simply suggested guidelines from states. Deferring to the tradition of local control of public schools has left an uneven array of implementing responses to COVID-19; overtaxed school and district leaders need technical assistance from federal and state educators.
  • One future consequence of students moving away from traditional public schools is the implications of funding shortfalls unless modifications are made to existing state funding policies. For example, more than half of the $524 million in CARES funding in May 2020 would be offset by up to $350 million in funding for the new cyber charter school students in Pennsylvania.

Many professions have risen to incredible challenges over the last year to minimize the harm to society as we faced making and implementing decisions with often incomplete and contradictory information. Educators are one such group, with teachers first pivoting on only a few days’ notice in spring 2020 to remote teaching, for which few had preparation or experience. Again during the summer and fall, educators faced incredible strains while teaching children in different modes—sometimes simultaneously—and in different circumstances. Yet, while teachers were praised for their efforts in the spring, many have been vilified in reopening debates, especially when they’ve expressed fears that working conditions were unsafe. In many districts, reopening decisions are currently largely a moot point because too many teachers are now sick and there is not enough personnel to support in-person learning. Teachers will be crucial in addressing the inequalities that have grown, and in welcoming students and families back into schools once the pandemic recedes. Efforts to retain and support teachers, financially and otherwise, alongside prioritizing their vaccination, are essential.

As infection rates continue to rise, the spring will offer new and uncharted challenges. Though warmer weather and ensuing vaccinations are on the horizon, the day-to-day functions of public schools will continue to be upended through at least the first half of 2021. How the new federal administration chooses to implement safety measures and provide financial and logistical support will be important. Even more important, however, is how we, as a country, collectively work to bridge the gaps that this pandemic—and the response to it— has exacerbated. Parents’ willingness to send their children back to school reflects the trust they have in our public systems to take care of their families. White families disproportionately choosing to send their children to school in-person suggests that our public systems offer differential benefits to American families. Our findings underscore a national need to rebuild trust among families of color who have, through the course of the pandemic, seen the harsh consequences of racial segregation and inequality in our country.

Article Topics: school districts, racial disparities, health, education
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