As buildings reopen, many families of color are choosing to keep students home. That disparity is raising alarms, given the shortcomings of remote learning.
- Dec. 8, 2020
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s monthslong effort to reopen New York City classrooms was complicated by major logistical challenges, staunch political resistance and a series of crises that culminated in a brief systemwide shutdown last month. At every turn, Mr. de Blasio insisted that the city’s most vulnerable children needed open schools.
But as some school buildings reopen this week, the mayor has found himself presiding over a starkly unequal school system in which many white families have flocked back to classrooms while most families of color have chosen to learn from home indefinitely.
That gulf is illustrated in a startling statistic: There are nearly 12,000 more white children returning to public school buildings than Black students — even though there are many more Black students than white children in the system overall. Latino students are returning at a rate roughly proportional to their overall representation in the school system.
In New York and across the country, politicians and education officials have found that many nonwhite families are not ready to send their children back to classrooms — despite their struggles with remote learning — in part because of the disproportionately harsh impact the virus has had on their communities.
But the fact that so many students of color have chosen remote over in-person learning is raising alarms that existing disparities in the nation’s largest school system will widen, since remote learning has been far less effective, parents, educators and officials said in dozens of interviews. More than ever, they say, the city must quickly bolster online instruction — or risk having its neediest children fall irrevocably behind.
“It’s the perfect storm of marginalization,” said Jamila Newman of TNTP, a nonprofit that provides consulting services for districts on staffing and instruction. “That’s why there is the need to demand stronger instruction remotely.”
New York’s issues with remote instruction begin with a lack of basic infrastructure for students learning from home. Many low-income students, including some living in homeless shelters, cannot even log on for classes because they still do not have devices or Wi-Fi.
Educators also said they were scrambling to make lessons more engaging for students without much helpful guidance from the city. So while individual teachers and schools have honed creative strategies to improve online instruction, there is no clear citywide plan to do the same, leaving a patchwork system of learning across the city’s 1,800 schools.
Mr. de Blasio has himself acknowledged that his administration spent much of its time and resources focused on physically reopening classrooms, rather than on improving remote learning, precisely because it understood that in-person learning is generally superior.
But the shortcomings of that strategy are now becoming clear in the demographic breakdown of the roughly 190,000 children returning to classrooms this week.
Of the roughly 1 million students who attend traditional public schools, about 700,000 have chosen to learn from home, and another 110,000 middle and high school students signed up for in-person classes but cannot yet return to school buildings.
Latino students make up the largest share of students returning to classrooms, at about 43 percent, But white children, who are less likely to be low-income than many of their peers, make up a quarter of students back in classrooms, even though they represent just 16 percent of overall enrollment, the smallest percentage of any racial group.
Image Black children make up nearly a quarter of the system, but just 18 percent of the students back in schools.Credit…Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
Black and Asian-American families are significantly underrepresented in reopened classrooms. Though Black families make up nearly a quarter of the school system, their children represent just 18 percent of the students back in schools. Asian-American children, who represent about 18 percent of the overall school system, make up the smallest share of children in classrooms this week, at just under 12 percent.
Still, about three-quarters of children returning to schools are nonwhite, in part because the system is overwhelmingly Black and Latino.
There is no one reason the numbers are so skewed. Families of all racial and ethnic groups in New York have decided to return to classrooms or stay home based on individual circumstances. But the data and interviews with parents show that Black and Asian-American families in particular did not trust the city to keep their children safe.
“Clearly, there are Black families who are hesitant, which only makes sense after the disparities they experienced during the heights of the pandemic,” Bill Neidhardt, the mayor’s press secretary, said in a statement. “And that’s exactly why our vaccine response will focus on equity and engaging the hardest-hit communities, so we can get our schools fully back once and for all.”
Experts and advocates said more nonwhite students might have chosen to attend classes in person if the city had done a better job of outreach.
In some cases, just the opposite happened: Even while Mr. de Blasio was trumpeting open classrooms, some schools were asking every family that was able to stay at home to do so, in order to ease staffing and scheduling burdens.
But those who chose online learning said they needed more support from the Department of Education.
“I feel like the city treats remote like an afterthought,” said Erika Kendall, a Black parent in Brooklyn whose two children decided to learn from home this year.
About 60,000 students learning remotely still had not received the devices they requested as of a few weeks ago, which has spurred some parents to crowd-fund laptops for children who need them. The Legal Aid Society recently sued the city for not providing Wi-Fi in all city shelters so that children can attend school remotely.
City officials said they would distribute devices to all children who need them in the coming weeks, and noted that they have given iPads with data from multiple service providers to some children living in shelters.
Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, pointed to resources the city had provided to improve remote learning: for example, expanded technical support for teachers and families and more training for educators, including a master class for using Google Classroom and more help from remote learning specialists.
“We have transformed the nation’s largest school system in a matter of months, and we’ve never strayed from our commitment and focus on making remote learning the strongest it could be,” she said in a statement. “In a system as large as ours, educators come into teaching with varying skills, and there can never be a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Still, many families said the city’s efforts have been seriously lacking, particularly for the children who struggle most with remote learning.
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Jenn Choi, a parent and activist for children with disabilities, said a recent survey she helped conduct of over 1,000 city parents of children with special needs left her extremely discouraged about the quality of pandemic-era schooling. “Instruction has been spread so thin to the point where it can’t even count as special education instruction,” she said.
Mr. de Blasio has continued to defend his focus on reopening classrooms.
“We’ve always said from the beginning that nothing is as good as in-person education,” the mayor said at a recent news conference, adding that he believes a vaccine will be more widely distributed in the spring, allowing more students to return to school. On Monday, the mayor said his team is working on a plan to address learning loss for whenever all students are back in school full-time.
The demographics of the pandemic-era school system do not resemble what the mayor hoped and expected. But entrenched inequities in New York City’s public schools far precede his administration or the pandemic. And the mayor’s effort to reopen schools for as many children as possible is one of the most ambitious initiatives undertaken by any mayor in years.
Mr. de Blasio has defended his focus on reopening classrooms, even as most parents have chosen to have their children learn from home indefinitely. Credit…Anna Watts for The New York Times
The city has faced particular challenges because of its vast size and the spotlight that has been fixed on it. The second and third largest school districts, Los Angeles and Chicago, still have not attempted to reopen their public schools.
The scale of need among the city’s public school students is also unmatched anywhere else in the country, making reopening even more challenging: The vast majority of New York City students are low-income and nonwhite, and the city is home to about 111,000 homeless students as well as 200,000 children with disabilities.
City officials described a series of conversations over the summer in which they tried to determine if one vulnerable group or another should get priority for classroom instruction, but the exercise stalled when they found that the vast majority of students were at risk.
Asked recently what the city was doing to improve online learning for those students, the schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, said, “It’s not sexy-sounding, it’s not big newsworthy, but we’re actually taking what teachers are doing and sharing those best practices with other teachers.”
Indeed, teachers and principals said they had largely been left to their own devices.
Elsa Gilheany, a kindergarten teacher in the Bronx, spends many mornings tying her laundry bag around her shoulders to resemble a cape, in order to transform into what she calls a reading superhero. She kicks off a round of “pointer power,” in which her students point to a word on their screen and sound it out, and “snap power,” when children are asked to quickly identify words.
But even with engaged students and parents, Ms. Gilheany said, “It’s so much harder to do this through a computer, as opposed to a child being able to physically touch a book.”
Nikki Cistac, a high school English teacher in Manhattan, has sent copies of “The Great Gatsby” in Spanish to students’ parents who do not speak English at home, so they can follow along with their children. She asked students to create a playlist of their favorite songs, which Ms. Cistac lip-synchs on camera as students log into class.
Now, she said, “kids are rarely late.”
Teachers across the city said they had learned to appreciate breakthroughs in virtual learning. For Matt Baker, a high school math teacher in Brooklyn, that moment came a few weeks ago, when his students started singing along to a tune intended to help them memorize the quadratic formula.
But those victories can feel all too rare.
“It’s hard to get a good gauge on whether what you’re doing is working,” Mr. Baker said. “You kind of put it all out there. It’s a lot of hoping.”