That’s despite a White House-led push to inoculate millions of educators against Covid-19; the Biden administration’s close relationships with national teachers’ unions; a growing number of reopening schools and signs of public optimism about a return to normal classes this fall. A central concern is that families of color are choosing to opt out.
“On a good day we’re not inclined to trust the system because many of us have gone through that system and aren’t really trustful of what’s going on in classrooms,” said Keri Rodrigues, the founding president of the National Parents Union advocacy organization.
“You can’t really blame parents of color for saying ‘You know what, I’m not ready to re-engage with the system yet,’” Rodrigues said. “All of this mistrust is really well earned.”
Now the administration, unions and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona must confront deeper political and policy challenges to win the trust of reluctant families, coax them back to school and include them in the president’s economic recovery agenda.
One labor group is polling parents about their views and planning to launch a school reopening campaign this summer. A new political appointee responsible for spearheading school reopening is coming to Washington. And the Biden administration is urging local districts to tap a fresh line of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to help bridge the gap.
Returning children to the classroom safely is as much of a policy challenge for the Biden White House as it is a political hurdle. Republicans have already started up an unofficial campaign targeting Biden’s muddled messaging on school reopenings. Inside the White House, officials are well aware that getting children out of homes is critical to reopening the economy and allowing parents to return to the workforce. Biden is expected to raise up his progress on schools at an address before Congress on Wednesday, but won’t go so far as to declare victory.
Jessica Cardichon, the Education Department’s deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development, said the administration is tracking early data to get a clearer picture of which students are making it back into the classroom and what factors are in play. But with schools having just reopened, she said data are still scant.
“It is too soon to say there is progress,” Cardichon said.
Nationwide, 52 percent of white fourth graders were back inside public schools full time by the end of February, according to the latest available estimates from a government school reopening survey Biden commissioned. But between 54 and 69 percent of Black, Hispanic and Asian fourth-graders were enrolled in full-time remote instruction at that point, complicating Cardona’s top policy priority as the government directs tens of billions of dollars in school reopening aid to states.
A tangle of factors are likely responsible for the uneven reopening.
“Students who are experiencing homelessness, they might have different reasons why it’s hard for them to return to school. English learners, different reasons as well,” Cardichon said. “We see our role as really a comprehensive approach of understanding the many different reasons why families are not returning and how we can support schools and districts in creating welcoming learning environments and re-engaging students who may have been disconnected for quite some time.”
Cardona has meanwhile suggested “issues of distrust” between minority families and their schools lie at the core of the problem.
“It is concerning that students of color in particular are not coming in at the same rates as other students,” the secretary told reporters earlier this month. “But it shouldn’t surprise us, if prior to the pandemic we have had issues engaging and achieving the same outcomes for students of color as the general student population.”
Cardona has no formal power to reopen the nation’s schools, but serves as a critical ambassador for enacting the president’s agenda. His administration just appointed Nick Simmons, last a top policy adviser to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, to serve as Cardona’s senior adviser for school reopening and recovery. Simmons worked closely on school reopening with Cardona and other branches of Lamont’s administration.
The federal government recently sent states $81 billion of fresh pandemic recovery funds to help schools reopen — and is now requiring local education agencies and school districts to consult parents, civil rights groups and teachers’ unions about their reopening plans before accessing another $41 billion in aid. The Department of Health and Human Services is steering another $10 billion toward school virus testing.
New Education Department guidance pushes school administrators to understand why students of color might opt out of in-person learning. Cardona’s even been a regular visitor to local schools across the country, cheerleading the reopening effort alongside the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association.
The president has accomplished major goals on vaccinations and in-person learning, AFT President Randi Weingarten said. “I suspect that on Wednesday he’s going to talk about some of these successes, but you’re not going to hear him say ‘Mission Accomplished,’” she said. “There’s still lots of work we have to do.”
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Weingarten said her group is conducting polling, alongside the NAACP and LULAC civil rights organizations, to gauge the precise reasons behind minority families’ mistrust of returning to school. She’s also eyeing a broader outreach campaign.
“We’re going to make sure that the pandemic does not break the relationship between our schools and our communities,” she said. “And if that means going door to door and running a national campaign that says once we’ve gotten the safeguards to ensure safe in-school learning for staff and students, we’re going to make sure that parents know it.”
It’s not clear how in-person attendance gaps will change prior to the end of the school year. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said schools should be planning for a full school year starting in the coming 2021-22 term, as the agency works on forthcoming vaccination plans for adolescents and the logistics of delivering shots at schools.
“Whether we can get everybody back before then for this year is going to be tough, because there are a lot of logistics and people are still getting vaccinated,” Walensky said Friday during a panel discussion with former Govs. Dirk Kempthorne and Deval Patrick.
“But I think it’s our responsibility to lean in and try and get there now, and to ensure that we’re there for ‘21-22. We owe that to our children.”
Updated government school reopening data is expected to arrive in early May. In the meantime, Rodrigues said she’s demanding the administration and schools do more to connect with minority families.
“You have what I believe to be very well-intentioned people making decisions for us, without us and without our children,” she said. “You can’t do that in this situation, because we’re willing to opt out.”
“I hope it doesn’t take that. We’ve got to handle this now because the long term consequences of this are too significant.”
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