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'We're Not a Monolith': Some Black and Brown Parents in Oakland Feel Conflicted as In-Person Learning Returns

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Ryan Austin, artist educator, helps her son Onyx with school through Zoom at their home in Oakland on April 14, 2021.
Ryan Austin, artist educator, helps her son Onyx with school through Zoom at their home in Oakland on April 14, 2021. According to Austin, Onyx has thrived during distance learning because the family can actively engage in his learning. However, Austin is quick to point out that this is only possible due to the fact that both her and her husband, Michael, work from home. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On Monday, the Oakland Unified School District will welcome back third through sixth graders at select schools. But as kids prepare a gradual return to in-person learning, some parents are still feeling hesitant about ending distance learning altogether.

Ryan Austin, artist educator and Oakland resident, said she's seen the wide range of effects that distance learning can have on kids, in part based on the kind of support systems they have at home.

Austin’s sister, Arayna, is an OUSD sixth grader. She attends all her classes through Zoom and does her best to keep up with schoolwork. But Austin said it’s difficult for her to engage with the material and her classmates.

“She’s not very present,” Austin said. “I’m witnessing a dearth of her education experience.”

But Austin's 6-year-old son, Onyx, who attends a private school in the city, has been thriving during his remote classes. That's in part because Austin and her husband, Michael, work from home, she said, and they’ve been able to spend a lot of time together with Onyx to work with him to understand what his learning styles and interests are.

Ryan Austin helps her son Onyx with school through Zoom at their home in Oakland on April 14, 2021.
Ryan Austin helps her son Onyx with school through Zoom at their home in Oakland on April 14, 2021. Austin has expressed concern that the reopening debate has used the narratives of Black and brown parents without actively engaging these families and their needs. (Beth LaBerge./KQED)

“We’ve hit our stride. He’s learned the expectations about how his day goes, he’s fallen into a rhythm,” Austin said. When she is able to, she sometimes audits Onyx’s classes to learn how her son is adjusting to distance learning and jots down what he needs extra help with.

Staying at home has also helped boost Onyx’s health. When he entered kindergarten last school year, he had to miss 11 days of school after coming down with a heavy cold. This especially worried his parents because Onyx has serious allergies.

This school year, Onyx has not missed a single day of school.

“As a family, we’ve maintained that it’s best for him to keep learning here at home,” Austin said. “We just want to make sure that there are better safety protocols before we put him back into a space where we know he will be exposed to all kinds of illnesses, namely COVID-19.”

Despite the fact that Onyx is allowed to return to in-person classes, Austin said she's keeping him home for now.

Why? Because Austin and her husband can be at home throughout the day to provide him support.

“We’re aware that we have a privilege that we’re able to be here with him, that other people don’t have,” Austin pointed out, “so I wouldn’t dare to tell other folks to not take their kids to school.”

Other parents she knows are front-line workers who don’t have the option to stay home with their kids. Having schools reopen allowed them to drop off their kids and head to work knowing that they won’t be alone in the house.

As districts across California have grappled with difficult conversations around reopening, Austin said she's been troubled by a certain aspect of the school reopening conversation: Organizations and advocates — both for and against reopening the Bay Area’s schools — have both cited the needs and experiences of Black and brown parents to support their viewpoints.

“Going back to school, the narrative that is out there for Black and brown folks doesn’t necessarily represent everybody,” she said. “We’re not a monolith.”

Austin feels that those pushing to delay or speed reopening should be talking less about Black and brown parents, and should be spending more time talking with them.

Austin's husband, Michael, and their son Onyx at their home in Oakland on April 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Parents of Color, Mixed Data and Mixed Experiences

In March, OUSD released the results of the form it sent out to parents of kids in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade. The choice the district offered parents was simple: a return in-person, at least part-time, or remaining in distance learning for the remainder of the school year.

Parents of white students are the group with the highest preference for in-person learning at 76%, while 21% chose distance learning.

But results are more mixed among Black and Latino families.

Of the Black parents surveyed, 52% said they favored in-person learning, while 36% chose to continue distance learning. With Latino students, the margin is even smaller: 52% of parents selected in-person and 48% went with distance learning.

Among parents of Native American students, both options tied at 49%, while slightly more than a majority, 52%, of Asian families preferred to continue distance learning.

A screen grab of the OUSD dashboard tracking the results of the TK-5 Mandatory Student Preference form where parents could decide whether their child would return to in-person classes or continue distance learning.
A screen grab of the OUSD dashboard tracking the results of the TK-5 Mandatory Student Preference form where parents could decide whether their child would return to in-person classes or continue distance learning.

While the survey shows a majority of white families are in support of returning to in-person learning, the situation isn't as clear cut for families of color. And the small margins between the numbers suggest that race is not the best indicator of what those families might do in regards to school reopening.

Fruitvale resident Antonio Escobar is the parent of two kids. He said he felt relief when he heard schools were reopening.

Having his first grader and pre-kindergarten student home all the time has been extremely difficult for him and his wife. Because they both have jobs outside the house, they’ve had to coordinate a system during the pandemic so that one parent is always home.

“When the kids are in the house, they just want to play. If they go into class, they don’t learn much because they are so distracted,” he said in Spanish.

If the kids need help with their classes, Escobar is not always sure how to help them. His biggest concern is that they’re not learning what they need to, and his family doesn’t have the time or the resources to provide extra academic support.

“It’s going to be so much better as the kids go back to school because there they can actually focus and do their schoolwork,” he explained.

On the other hand, Claudia Guzmán, also a Fruitvale resident, decided her first grader, Alexis, would continue distance learning.

“When they go in, they will need to have the mask on the whole day, wash their hands every so often and keep social distance. So I think it will be difficult for him to keep his facemask on all day and just take it off to eat,” Guzmán said.

She’s a stay-at-home mom which, as she points out, allows her to assist Alexis with any bumps in the road, like bad Wi-Fi or a new lesson. “So being at home seems better to me even though I know he's not concentrating as much as he should be,” Claudia adds.

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Unpacking 'School Hesitancy' 

With many parents expressing feelings of anxiety, or saying they're uncomfortable sending their kids back to school after over a year at home, some researchers have started to use the term “school hesitancy” to describe the discomfort that families may have about the return to in-person learning. The term draws its inspiration from “vaccine hesitancy” — the reluctance someone may feel about getting vaccinated.

But the term "vaccine hesitancy" has also gotten some pushback from public health experts for not representing the full picture.

“I don't use that terminology. People want information about the vaccine. And I think that's a perfectly reasonable thing to ask for before you say, ‘I’m going to get a vaccine,’ ” said Dr. Kim Rhoads, an epidemiologist and biostatistician at UCSF who helped start Umoja, a coalition of community groups helping get Black residents in Oakland vaccinated and tested for COVID-19.

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This information, Rhoads affirms, should be “from people that they know and trust.”

And other experts say the same goes for "school hesitancy."

Dr. Yvonne Maldonado is a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Stanford. She’s been a part of vaccination efforts in East Palo Alto and East San Jose and has found that many parents of color are just looking for a bit more information and assurance on how health guidelines will be carried out in schools.

“What we’re hearing is that [parents] want their kids to go back. A lot of them have to work and they don’t like leaving their kids alone at home and there’s nobody that can come into the house even if they could afford it,” Maldonado said.

She argues that the growing number of cases of depression and dysregulation among kids in distance learning is a reason to address the return to schools as a public health issue instead of a political one.

“We’re talking about mental health issues and physical health problems,” she explained.

Maldonado also notes that low-income students and students of color could be the most affected if school authorities don’t adopt a public health model of talking to families about returning to in-person classes. This could include community members reaching out to families one-to-one to explain what precautions schools are taking to prevent infections and the possible health risks of extending distance learning.

But she stresses that it should be the school district taking on this responsibility, not necessarily parents.

"It’s like saying, ‘Well the parent should have told the doctor what to do.’ That’s not their job, it should be the school district," she said.

For its part, OUSD said they have employed a variety of strategies to engage families of color in the reopening process. John Sasaki, a spokesperson for OUSD, references the multiple listening sessions held through Zoom where medical staff from UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital answered questions from parents and students.

“We just want to make sure that we are being a good source for this information,” Sasaki said.

OUSD reopened its doors on March 30 to pre-K through second graders in several dozen schools. To demonstrate how it had prepared to follow health protocols, the district invited the media to Garfield Elementary School — one of the schools included in the reopening.

“We invited our community in to see what our schools look like with all the precautions we put in place, the kinds of markings on the floor, the kind of signage we have, the kinds of air filters, the PPE [personal protective equipment] that’s on hand, the spacing of desks,” he explained.

Bathrooms at Garfield Elementary School in preparation for students' return on March 30. (Vanessa Rancano/KQED)

But parents, like Ryan Austin, suggest a more direct approach. She’s seen how community-led vaccination efforts in predominantly Black neighborhoods in Oakland have disproven any assumption that Black residents fear the vaccine, and thinks a similar strategy can address any concerns holding back parents of color from sending their children back to in-person learning.

“It’s the same argument that they make about vaccinations, that Black and brown people just don’t want to get vaccinated, which is not true," Austin said. "If you're not doing the work to reach out to people in culturally relevant ways, you're going to miss them every time."

This post includes reporting from Queena Kim and Vanessa Rancaño.

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