That dynamic is playing out across the country: Districts where the vast majority of students are white are more than three times as likely as school districts that enroll mostly students of color to be open for some in-person learning, according to an analysis conducted by The Associated Press and Chalkbeat.
Students keep social distance as they walk to their classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill., part of the North Shore school district. Nam Y. Huh/ AP Photo
While that stark divide often reflects the preferences of parents, it’s one that could further exacerbate inequities in education.
In every state, the AP and Chalkbeat surveyed the largest school districts in each of four categories set by the National Center for Education Statistics: urban, suburban, town and rural.
Survey responses from 677 school districts covering 13 million students found that most students will begin the school year online. But the survey shows that race is a strong predictor of which public schools are offering in-person instruction and which aren’t.
For some students, continued distance learning raises risks they will fall behind peers who are learning in person, even though many districts say virtual learning will be much improved from the spring.
Students learning from home also will lose reliable access to free or subsidized meals, special education services and other support. Wealthy families may fill the gaps, but others will go without.
“I do worry about that and the fact there are these correlations between what schools are doing and students' backgrounds,” said Jon Valant, a senior fellow focused on education at the Brookings Institution.
There are a number of possible explanations for the racial divide. One is politics. Schools in areas that supported President Donald Trump in 2016 are more likely to open in person, the AP/Chalkbeat and other analyses show.
Another potential reason: School officials are responding to families. National and state polls show that Black and Latino parents are more likely to be wary of returning to school in person than white parents. That likely reflects the disparate toll of the pandemic, with people from those communities dying at higher rates from COVID-19.
“We believe they are taking our best interests at heart to keep everyone safe,” said Maira Velazquez, a Hispanic parent who was interviewed in Spanish and whose children go to school in the Manor district in suburban Austin. The district — which is about 66% Hispanic, 20% Black and about 7% white — will teach students virtually through at least mid-October.
Other factors are also influencing reopening decisions, including the severity of local virus outbreaks, school districts' ability to pay for costly safety precautions, and the guidelines set out by public health officials.
In the Norristown Area School District, outside Philadelphia, schools will teach students virtually until at least January. The school district serves around 7,700 students, of whom 42% are Hispanic, 33% are Black and 15% are white.
While the surrounding county’s coronavirus test positivity rate is hovering around 3% — below the 5% level that federal officials have offered as a safety threshold — the rates in the district itself are more than three times higher.
Cydney Suber, a senior at Norristown Area High School, does schoolwork at her home in Norristown, Pa. Michael Rubinkam/ AP Photo
School officials were “very cognizant” that the communities they serve have been disproportionately affected by the virus, according to superintendent Christopher Dormer, who also cited the district’s funding shortfalls and older buildings as playing a role in the decision to stay online.
The route each school district has chosen has taken on political significance, particularly after the Trump administration strongly encouraged schools to fully reopen for in-person learning.
That could help explain some of the overlapping relationship with race, as Black and Latino communities were much less likely to support Trump.
But some more liberal white communities are reopening schools, too.
The North Shore school district is based in a wealthy, majority-white Chicago suburb that superintendent Michael Lubelfeld calls “extremely” liberal.
To offer in-person instruction in shifts, the district is spending up to $3.4 million on things like upgrading air filters, improving ventilation, renting 20 tents to allow for outdoor learning, and paying for asymptomatic testing for staff.
Schools that are staying online are also investing large sums, in the hopes of reducing the risk their students fall behind.
Live instruction is becoming more common
In Norristown, the district has given a device to every student, and teachers are providing about three hours a day of live video instruction, unlike in the spring, when they prerecorded their lessons.
In Memphis, where 95,000 students in traditional public schools will be learning online until further notice, the school district is spending tens of millions of dollars on laptops and tablets. Officials in the district, where the vast majority of students are Black or Hispanic, have distributed more than 85,000 devices and will be offering several hours a day of live video classes.
Memphis parents like Iesha Wooten are still bearing a heavy burden. Wooten, who is Black, is overseeing virtual schooling for her three sons, a niece and two nephews.
But one of her sons has asthma and another has sickle cell disease, putting them at higher risk for severe complications from the coronavirus.
It comes down to this, she said: “I wouldn’t want them at risk.”
For Chalkbeat, Belsha in Chicago, Matt Barnum in New Hampshire, LaMarr LeMee in Washington, Laura Faith Kebede in Memphis, and Stephanie Wang in Indianapolis contributed. For The Associated Press, Rubinkam in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Jim Vertuno and Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, and Fenn and Derek Karikari in New York contributed.