School buildings: Essential learning centers or pandemic Petri dishes? Many Black parents feel conflicted.

By: - February 23, 2021 12:00 pm
Photo: Adobe Stock

Legislation would require public schools to reopen, worrying Black parents about sending their kids back during a pandemic. They also fear their kids will fall behind academically without in-person instruction.

Geraldine Alshamy is well-versed in the science that says schools aren’t big spreaders of the coronavirus, if districts follow state and federal health guidance. 

Alshamy, an education advocate who leads Mary Magdalene Ministries Inc., in Wake County also believes research that says learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic will harm students of color more so than their white peers 

Alshamy also knows, however, that one teacher or student death is one too many.dead child will never catch up [academically], she said. 

As Republican politicians, some Democrats and a growing number of COVID-weary parents push to reopen North Carolina’s public schools for in-person instruction, Black parents have begun to express fear about schools reopening before the coronavirus is under control.

“There are parents who are praying that their children don’t get COVID but don’t have a choice but to send them back to school because they have to work and they don’t have anyone to watch them,” Alshamy said.  

Just as many parents, however, won’t send children back into schools, skeptical that districts can protect students or teachers, she said. 

Those concerns peaked last week after the Republican-led General Assembly approved Senate Bill 37, which requires all school districts to provide in-person instruction.  

Geraldine Alshamy

Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to veto the bill. He contends that it does not require districts to follow recommended social distancing guidance and that it strips districts of flexibility to adjust to ever-changing coronavirus conditions. 

Sen. Deanna Ballard, (R-Watauga), a co-chair of the Senate Education Committee and a primary sponsor of SB 37, urged Cooper to sign the bill or quickly veto the legislation. “If a veto is coming, then do it now so the legislature can vote to override,” Ballard said in a statement. 

An override of a Cooper veto would require some Democrats to cross the aisle to vote with Republicans. Cooper has until Feb. 27 to act on the bill. If he does nothing, it will become law. 

Emergency Town Hall Virtual Meeting Hosted by Durham Association of Educators Tuesday, Feb. 23, 6 p.m. Register:

Black and Latinx students are at risk of falling further behind if schools aren’t reopened, researchers contend. Students of color will finish six to 12 months behind expected progress, according to a McKinsey analysis of Curriculum Associates data. Meanwhile, white students will be four to eight months behind.  

Even without a state mandate, the governor has urged districts to reopen school buildings to improve academic outcomes and the social and emotional well-being of North Carolina’s 1.5 million K-12 students. Cooper said last week that 91 of 115 school districts have already returned to in-person learning. Ninety-five percent of school districts representing 96% of students will have in-person learning by mid-March, he said. 

The NC Association of Educators opposes SB 37 largely on the same grounds as Cooper: that it doesn’t follow recommended social distancing guidelines for older children and that it strips state and local officials of flexibility. 

Ronda Bullock

Ronda Bullock leads the education committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, a nonprofit, community-based social justice and racial equity organization in Durham. “Some people want to send kids back, some people want to keep kids 100% virtual and some people want to do a hybrid, so there isn’t one voice coming out of our space.” 

SB 37’s potential impact has been felt more intensely in Durham than many other counties. The Durham school board had voted keep all students in remote learning for the remainder of the school year, but was forced to shift gears to respond to the legislation. 

Durham Public Schools will offer in-person instruction for elementary school students on March 15 the first time in a year. Most middle school and high school students are scheduled to return to classrooms April 8.  

Bullock said some parents report that their children are thriving in remote learning and that they plan to keep them in virtual school. “Some Black parents also report children are having more positive interactions with teachers in remote learning,” Bullock said. “The kids aren’t getting into as much trouble during remote learning. They’re thriving at home because some teachers are being more thoughtful about how they’re engaging kids in this virtual space, and people can hear them.” 

Bullock is undecided about sending her children back into the elementary school they attend. 

“I believe those of us who have the capacity to keep our kids home, that we should do it to minimize the number of kids who are in school,” Bullock said. “I do not believe in opening the doors so that everybody comes back at the same time, it’s just not a good idea.” 

Gov. Cooper announced this week that teachers can receive COVID-19 vaccinations as part of Group 3, beginning Wednesday, Feb. 24. In Durham, health officials estimate they will vaccinate 1,000 teachers a week.

Statewide, other educational personnel, such as bus drivers, daycare workers, custodians and cafeteria staff can receive vaccinations in the same group as teachers. In total, this accounts for nearly a quarter-million North Carolinians.

Black parents’ fears about sending children back into school buildings span socioeconomic lines. Those who have the option to work from home express the same angst as those who must report to jobs where a remote option doesn’t exist. Many white parents also have fears of sending their children back to in-person instruction, but parents of color tend to hold jobs that require they report to work each day. 

Jeana Hyman has been lucky. The Wake County parent has worked from home while her daughter Chloe, 5, attended her first year of school, which was an all-virtual experience. The remote learning ended last week for the kindergartner when the Wake County Public School System reopened for in-person instruction. At the same time, Hyman’s work-at-home option was ending, which made in-person instruction a necessity for Chloe.  

“It’s just so hard, it’s like you have no choice but to send them to school,” Hyman said. “When you have to go to work, you really don’t have a choice.” 

To prepare for in-person school, Hyman bought vitamins to help strengthen Chloe’s immune system and made sure that she drank plenty of water each day. “I don’t want her to get the coronavirus and I don’t want her to get it and pass it on to other people and they get really sick,” Hyman said.     

Shekhinah Hunter

Wanda Hunter, also a Wake County parent, took a different path. Hunter enrolled her two children in the WCPSS’s virtual academy in August. So far, she hasn’t seen or heard anything to make her regret the move. “When I made the decision, it was based on what would be best for them,” Hunter said. “There are so many unanswered questions about coronavirus.”  

Hunter is a single mother, with one child in elementary school and the other in high school. She is fortunate to work for a nonprofit that allows her to work from home. But she’s held jobs in the past where such an option would not have been available.  

“I can think of a time when I was working when this [the pandemic] would have been the craziest nightmare,” Hunter said. “There are parents who don’t have a work from home option. Their jobs are the way they put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads, so they don’t have the option of saying I’m going to work from home.” 

Antonio Jones, a DPS parent and president of the Durham Committee, hoped for a phased, hybrid approach as Durham students returned to school buildings. He thought his son would only have to attend school for in-person instruction a minimum of three days a week. Instead, Durham schools are requiring elementary students to attend school four days a week.   

“That extra day is an extra day of possible exposure [to the coronavirus],” Jones said. 

He said families must ultimately “do what’s best for their children.” 

The Durham Committee’s anxieties about reopening schools extends beyond the health of students and educators. 

Bullock said the group is also worried about the future of public schools in the aftermath of the pandemic. Its members point to New Orleans where the public school system was dismantled in favor of charter schools after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city in 2005. 

She wonders if Republican lawmakers have an ulterior motive: Get students back in classrooms to take standardized tests, then use low scores to portray public schools as failing students. 

“We already know that Black and brown students, and maybe other students as well are not going to do well on those standardized tests and will that data be used to undermine and continue the defunding of public schools,” Bullock said. “Legislators will say charter schools are doing better, private schools are doing better, let’s do these vouchers.” 

Earlier this month, Republican lawmakers introduced House Bill 32 to greatly expand the reach of the state’s voucher program. The program provides state money to help eligible families pay private school tuition. 

Alshamy said it’s “barbaric” to even think about bringing children and teachers back into school buildings during a pandemic. She said she had recently spoken with a middle school teacher who was in tears about returning to the classroom for in-person instruction.  

“They [teachers] don’t have what they need to keep themselves or children safe,” Alshamy said. 

“This is about politics and this is about money,” she said. We should not risk the safety of the people of North Carolina for politics and money.

Alshamy had this question for state leaders: “Where is your humanness?”   

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.