TOM EMMER, a Republican congressman from Minnesota, declared last month, “It’s the teachers’ unions that want to keep the schools closed.” For many parents, even progressive ones, that sentiment has become commonplace: everyone wants schools to reopen, but the teachers’ unions are dragging their feet. The truth is more complicated. Not all parents are equally eager to see their children back in school full-time.
The Understanding America Study, a survey conducted by the University of Southern California, found that 65% of American families wanted some form of remote learning for their children (46% wanted only remote schooling, while 19% preferred a mix of remote and in-person). White parents are least happy with online learning. Only 34% of white families prefer fully remote school, compared with 58% of Hispanic, 59% of black, and 66% of Asian families. While 72% of parents overall were satisfied with their child’s current mode of learning in December, only 65% of white parents were getting their preferred model compared with 85% of black, 81% of Hispanic, and 74% of Asian families. Non-white children are getting more remote education, and their parents, overall, prefer it.
Wonks worry about learning loss from remote education. But schools that mostly serve minority students are already struggling. Such schools are more likely to be overcrowded and short of teachers. In 2017, white fourth-graders (who are about nine years old) scored 25 points higher than African-American students and 19 points higher than Hispanic and Pacific Islanders on a national maths assessment. In 2019 a national assessment revealed that only 22% of Hispanic and 15% of black eighth-graders (about 13 years old) could read at or above grade level, compared with 42% of white pupils. Maths is just as poor. Just 20% of Hispanic and 14% of black eighth-graders were deemed proficient or better compared with 44% of white pupils. These numbers hardly inspire confidence in the school system.
And many non-white parents fear covid-19 more than any potential learning loss, for good reason. Black and Hispanic Americans have hospitalisation rates thrice that of whites, and are twice as likely to die from covid-19, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A Washington Post analysis found that Asian-American death rates are 53% higher than those of whites. Schools are generally not sites for covid-19 transmission, according to the CDC. But they can spread disease when community rates are high, and predominantly minority communities have much higher covid-19 rates.
Non-white children are also likelier than white children to attend underfunded schools in substandard buildings. According to the Learning Policy Institute, a think-tank, 10m pupils and 1m public employees face exposure to covid-19 from deficient ventilation systems, and this problem disproportionately impacts racial minorities who attend the poorest schools. Furthermore, dilapidated buildings left dormant for months—as many schools have been in the wake of covid-19—have particular problems. Stagnant water in schools’ plumbing systems could sicken children through dangerous bacteria or high lead levels. Federal funding will help, but may be inadequate for some systems, and repairs take time. Michael Griffith of the Learning Policy Institute estimates that simpler ventilation updates could take two to three months, but some buildings are beyond repair and could require time-consuming and expensive new construction.
These three concerns—poor academic performance, possible infection from covid-19 and dilapidated buildings—make in-person learning unappealing to many minority families. “There is a reason that many students from families of colour, and low-income families are less excited about going back in person,” explains Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education at Brown University. “We’re realising those schools were not always places that were welcoming and supportive environments for those students.”
That has created an additional racial disparity in education—access to in-person education. White students are more likely to have access to safe in-person instruction than their racial minority peers, even in the same district. In New York City 12,000 more white students attended school in person in December than black students, despite the district having about 100,000 more black students. In Chicago, fewer than 30% of eligible students have opted to return in March, and they are disproportionately white.
To address such disparities school systems could offer high-dosage tutoring—focused lessons with one tutor and one to four students three or more times per week during the school day in person or online. Mr Kraft estimates that such a programme for all public schools would cost $49bn, and a focused program for only poor schools would cost $26bn, and expects that stimulus funding will “serve to accelerate efforts to scale tutoring.”
Teachers also need professional development to fully leverage the advantages of online learning. While in-person schooling is optimal for socialisation and other informal aspects of schooling, online learning can actually be better for instruction, explains Dan Levy of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Remote learning provides opportunities for feedback and group work less readily available in person through polling features, breakout rooms and collaborative tools such as Google documents. And remote features will only get better, says Mr Levy. New Jersey’s state government has realised that remote learning could be a long-term reality, so it may require remote learning professional development for all teachers. Other states may want to follow suit, as covid-19 reveals long-standing systemic inequalities in public education that will not easily be overcome.