Eliza Shapiro, New York Times, December 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.