Opinion | Don’t Kill Remote Learning. Black and Brown Families Need It.

By RiShawn Biddle

Mr. Biddle is Senior Fellow with FutureEd, a nonpartisan think tank, and editor of Dropout Nation, an education news magazine.

Remote instruction. Virtual learning. School-by-Zoom. Whatever you want to call it, it has kept this Black man — along with my wife and 7-year-old son — safe from Covid over the last year, even if it hasn’t been easy on anyone. Each day, as my son sits at his desk in our home near Washington, D.C., learning about bar graphs on a laptop screen, I am comforted by the knowledge that he’s not sitting in a poorly ventilated classroom at risk of getting sick.

While my wife and I managed to get vaccinated, I also know that vaccine inequity has left many Black and Latino communities like mine, already the hardest hit by this pandemic (and often lacking health care to start), without access to inoculations they and their children need. This includes neighbors of mine who have no choice but to work in person because of the nature of their jobs. (Vaccine hesitancy, a legacy of systemic racism, was feared to be the initial problem for Black and Latino communities. But as Kaiser Family Foundation reported last month, the percentage of Black and Latino adults who are delaying or refusing vaccination is dropping. Even among the vaccine hesitant, concerns such as taking time off from work, out-of-pocket costs, and inability to get vaccines are major barriers.)

Remote learning has also been helpful to parents I work with whose children suffer from chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes.

Which is why announcements in the last month by politicians such as the New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, and Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey that remote learning won’t be available for the next year are bad news for the majority of the country’s Black, Latino and Asian students and their parents who wish to keep virtual learning as an option. Eliminating remote learning, which many of these families support, exacerbates already-existing educational and health care inequities. New York City and other districts should figure out how to keep remote learning as an option.

Despite 88 percent of all school buildings nationwide having been reopened, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the reality is that the majority of families of color (and even a significant number of white households) still opt for their kids to learn virtually. Polling has consistently shown support for remote learning among nonwhite families. As a recent example, 59 percent of nonwhite parents polled in May by the National Parents Union said they wanted both in-person and remote options for the next school year.

Black, Latino and Asian families will concede that school-by-Zoom can be a hot mess. Decades of federal neglect of broadband, as well as struggles by districts to roll out technology in a timely manner, has meant that students have been shortchanged at various points in the last year. But these families are also realistically assessing the risks they and their children still face from COVID-19 — and the long odds of proper ventilation and mitigation in the oft-neglected school buildings in their communities. Many school buildings in Black and brown communities were poorly ventilated long before the pandemic. Asbestos and terrible conditions have also been constant problems. While the federal American Rescue Plan Act devotes some of the $123 billion allocated to schools for building improvements, growing evidence that school districts are buying unproven air purifiers, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s belated admission that the coronavirus spreads by airborne transmission, have further heightened their longstanding distrust.

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