NYC students of color are less likely to return to school buildings this year, new poll finds

Low-income families and parents of color are more skeptical than their white and affluent peers about their schools’ safety plans, even as positivity rates remain low.

Three of Lilah Mejia’s children learn remotely from her apartment on the Lower East Side. Out of safety concerns, Mejia does not want her children to return for any in-person learning this year. (Lilah Mejia)

Lilah Mejia’s 12-year-old daughter is eager to return to school in person after having learned from home since March. But even as Mejia juggles a job and helping her five school-age children with remote learning, the Lower East Side parent won’t entertain the idea. 

“It’s about life or death to me,” Mejia said, citing coronavirus concerns. “It’s not even an option — I’m not opting in.”

Next month, families whose children are learning exclusively from home will be able to opt into hybrid learning, comprising a mix of in-person and remote studies. But parents of color like Mejia, who is Afro-Latina, are far less likely to choose on-campus learning. That’s according to an Education Trust-New York poll, released Wednesday, which also showed that families with household incomes under $50,000 are less inclined than wealthier ones to return to school buildings this school year. (Education department officials had originally said families could opt into in-person learning quarterly; but the city announced Monday that fully remote students will have just one opportunity this school year to choose hybrid learning.) 

Mayor Bill de Blasio aggressively pushed to reopen schools, saying that low-income families of color, who make up the majority of the school system, want and need their children back on campus. But the Education Trust poll of 352 city parents shows that low-income families, as well as parents of color, are more skeptical than their white and affluent peers about their schools’ safety plans, even as positivity rates remain low among students and school staff.

The poll shows that 44% of parents of color whose children are learning at home full-time said they’re not considering a return to in-person learning this school year, while just 10% of white parents felt the same way. Half of low-income respondents had ruled out in-person schooling this school year, compared to 28% of those with household incomes greater than $50,000. 

The poll indicates that opportunities for social interaction and fears of falling behind academically are the most popular reasons that full-remote families are considering going back to school in person.

An Education Trust poll from August showed that parents of color statewide were less supportive of in-person school. In New York City, nearly three-quarters of Asian families have so far chosen an all-remote schedule. Meanwhile, 54% of Black students are learning from home full-time, as are 52% Hispanic students, and about 40% of white students, according to city data. 

“If you think about the history of people of color used as guinea pigs and knowing that history, I don’t feel safe,” said Mejia, member of District 1’s Community Education Council, who acknowledged that city schools have so far not been shown to be major coronavirus spreaders.

The city’s randomized testing in schools have suggested that coronavirus infection rates are relatively low, with about 0.15% of tests conducted in schools coming back positive, de Blasio said this week. That’s far less than the citywide average of 2.48% on Tuesday. The city’s seven-day rolling average was 1.66%, which is below the city’s 3% threshold for shutting schools citywide.

What added to her fear, Mejia said, was a chaotic summer of planning and changes without clear information from the city about how blended learning would look.

Overall, most families said remote learning is better this school year, compared to the spring, and that their own school is handling the coronavirus well. While families of color are less likely to be satisfied with the remote experience, that has not been enough to persuade them to choose in-person learning. 

Fear of contracting the virus, coupled with the country’s long history of institutional racism, has sown distrust, said Noliwe Rooks, a professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. Even though there is some evidence that shows schools can reopen safely in most parts of the country, she pointed to the virus’ toll on people of color. In the spring, Black and Hispanic New Yorkers were dying at twice the rate of their white and Asian neighbors. 

“Parents are just like, ‘We are poor, we are of color, we know the city doesn’t care about us,’” Rooks said. “Right or wrong, that is how they feel.”

Rooks, who said the city should focus its efforts on improving remote learning, added: “If your school is honest-to-god safe and there is just fear out there, then you need to do a better job of communicating with parents.”

Of the 352 Education Trust survey respondents, 40% identified as white, 35% as Hispanic, 13% as Black, and 12% as Asian. 

Findings of the poll also include:

  • 69% of parents surveyed — and 56% of Black respondents — said remote learning is better this fall than in the spring.
  • 45% of parents of color responded that remote learning has been successful, while 61% of white parents said the same thing. 
  • Three-quarters of parents said their school is handling the coronavirus well. That number is 70% for parents of color and 82% for white parents. Meanwhile two-thirds of low-income families and 78% of more affluent ones are satisfied with their school’s pandemic response. 
  • Overall, 47% of parents indicated confidence in their school’s health and safety precautions — including 58% of white families and 40% of families of color. About a third of low-income families expressed confidence in such measures, compared to more than half of higher-income parents. 

City officials this week revealed that about 280,000 students have shown up for in-person learning so far — about 180,000 fewer than the education department had anticipated.

Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for the education department, highlighted the finding that most polled parents believe their individual schools are handling the pandemic well.

“Teaching and learning is at the core of what we do, and we’ve dedicated extensive resources to improving remote education while remaining clear-eyed about the limitations, and still firmly believing in-person education is the best option,” Filson said in a statement. “As infection rates remain low, we are providing families another opportunity to opt-in to blended learning as long as they feel comfortable doing so.”

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