Pauline Rojas High School in San Antonio is open. But like many of her classmates, she has not returned and has little interest in it.
During the coronavirus pandemic, she started working 20 to 40 hours a week at Raising Cane’s, a fast food restaurant, and used the money to pay her family’s internet bills, buy clothes, and save on a car.
Ms. Rojas, 18, has no doubt that a year of online school wedged between work shifts that end at midnight has impacted her learning. Nevertheless, she has accepted her new role as a breadwinner and shared responsibility with her mother, who works in a hardware store.
“I wanted to take the stress out of my mother,” she said. “I’m not a child anymore. I am able to have a job, have a job, and make my own money. “
Only a small fraction of American schools are still completely closed: 12 percent of elementary and middle schools, according to a federal survey, as well as a minority of high schools. However, the percentage of students who study completely remotely is much higher: more than a third of fourth and eighth grade students and an even larger group of students. The majority of Black, Hispanic, and Asian American students stay outside of school.
These differences have put district leaders and policy makers in a difficult position as they finish this school year and plan for the next. Although the pandemic in the US appears to be getting under control as vaccinations progress, many superintendents say fear of the coronavirus itself is no longer the main reason their students opt out. Also, many families do not express a strong preference for distance learning.
Rather, for every child and parent who took the opportunity to return to the classroom, others have changed their lives in the past year in such a way that it is difficult to go back to school. The consequences are likely to linger in the education system for years, especially if states and counties continue to allow students to attend school remotely.
Youngsters from low-income families have taken on a lot of paid work, especially because so many parents have lost their jobs. Parents have made new childcare arrangements to survive the long months of school closings and part-time hours and are now reluctant to disrupt established routines. Some families are unaware that the local public schools have reopened due to language barriers or a lack of effective communication from districts.
Experts have coined the term “school reluctance” to describe the remarkably enduring resistance to a return to traditional learning. Some wonder if the pandemic has simply changed people’s choices about life, as the place of schooling – like the place of office work – is now to be taken. However, others see the phenomenon as a social and educational crisis for children that needs to be addressed – a challenge that is akin to the hesitation of the vaccine.
“There are so many stories and they are all heartbreaking stories,” said Pedro Martinez, the headmaster of San Antonio, who said the greatest challenge was getting teenagers into the classrooms of his predominantly Hispanic low-income district Bringing back income. Half of the students can return to school five days a week, but only 30 percent have chosen to do so. Concerned about dropping grades and the risk of dropping out of school, he plans to severely restrict access to distance learning in the next school year.
“I don’t want to open this Pandora’s box any further,” he said.
In March, half of black and Hispanic children and two-thirds of Asian-American children were enrolled in a remote school, compared with 20 percent of white students, according to the latest federal data. While most district leaders and policy makers believe that the classroom is the best place for children and teenagers to study, many are reluctant to put pressure on families who have had a traumatic year.
An added complication is the continued opposition to full-time in-person learning by some teachers and district officials, with unions arguing that widespread vaccination of educators and soon teenagers will not eliminate the need for physical distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise three to six feet of distancing in schools. In this context, students who opt out create the space necessary to serve students who prefer to be personal.
At the same time, remote learning is a personnel challenge for districts. In some countries, such as San Antonio, it is common for teachers to teach remote and in-person students at the same time via a live video stream from the classroom to the students at home. In other countries like New York City, unions have opposed teachers doing both at the same time, which makes it difficult to fill the class with full staff.
May 8, 2021, 5:12 p.m. ET
In New York and several other cities where many teachers have been given medical accommodation to work from home, some students in classrooms have been asked to sign up for remote learning platforms to interact with teachers at other locations in the building to be and increase opt-out rates. Districts offering distance learning in the next school year could outsource work to stand-alone online schools and allow their own teachers to return to buildings. However, some education and child health experts have been warning of the social and academic consequences of extended distance learning for many months.
“It is unacceptable that we have a two-tier education system in which white children go to school disproportionately in person and color students go to school disproportionately online,” said Vladimir Kogan, political scientist at Ohio State University.
Professor Kogan’s research found that parents are more reluctant to study in person when their children’s schools are closed for extended periods of time, which is most likely the case in the more liberal neighborhoods where large numbers of non-white students live . The hesitation was caused less by fear of the coronavirus than by news from school districts whether face-to-face learning was safe and desirable, noted Professor Kogan.
Many governors, mayors, school boards and superintendents are still debating whether families should continue to be able to teach virtually in the fall. However, a survey of educators in February found that 68 percent expected their systems to offer a range of distance learning options even after the pandemic ended.
As long as the option of distance learning remains, reaching out to families directly is the best way to entice students back into traditional classrooms, educators say.
In Indianapolis public schools, 20 percent of students study completely remotely, a lower percentage than in many other neighborhoods. The district made 1,000 home visits over two days in April to look for children chronically absent during the pandemic and sometimes encouraged them to revisit in person.
Antoinette Austin, the district social services coordinator, visited a boy who was living with an aunt. She didn’t speak English and didn’t know that her nephew’s school had reopened. Several other families needed help arranging transportation to get their children to school, Ms. Austin said.
Updated May 5, 2021
The latest on how the pandemic is changing education.
Hybrid school schedules have also made it difficult for many families to commit to face-to-face learning during the pandemic.
Such was the case with Angela Kersey, who was bringing her 13-year-old son Jonathon back to his Indianapolis school when it reopened this winter. But she pulled it back when she found that her apartment maintenance work schedule couldn’t withstand the upheaval caused by the school’s half-time hours and closings upon the discovery of virus cases.
Talking about Zoom, Ms. Kersey rubbed her temples as she remembered trying to introduce online learning to her son, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. There was a particularly difficult time when the two shared a single room and lived with roommates. At times, the effort to be both a parent and a teacher caused so much struggle that Ms. Kersey gave up virtual learning.
“I just had to surrender,” she said.
Not ready to return to this routine, she enrolled Jonathon in a learning center five days a week at Brookside Community Church, where college students study Supervision of distance schools and sports for 14 children.
Jonathon’s regular school is now open five days a week, but Ms. Kersey said she didn’t want to disrupt her son’s new routine.
In New Orleans, Frederick A. Douglass High School, part of the national KIPP Charter School network, first reopened for personal learning in October and now offers students four days a week of tuition. Still, it was a big challenge to get the students back. In the fall, 50 to 75 of the school’s 600 students showed up every day; more recently it has been about half. Ninety percent of the school’s students are black and come from low-income families.
Towana Pierre-Floyd, the headmistress, has taken several steps to convince families to return. Maintaining upbeat events on campus, such as homecoming elections, showed that students were practically visiting what they’d missed out on in the building, she said. In addition, the school began issuing weekly progress reports to families with student grades and assessment results. A practice Ms. Pierre-Floyd said she would continue even after the pandemic ended.
With most students not doing as well virtually virtually, the reports left families “hungry for an option to be with teachers,” she said.
Ms. Pierre-Floyd envisions that all of her student body will be back in person for the next school year, but she knows that a major adjustment will be required. Some teenagers offer childcare for younger siblings. Parents who lost their jobs in the city’s troubled tourism sector sometimes needed their children to work.
She plans to hire an attendance coordinator and expand an early college program that will allow students to work towards certification as medical assistants or develop carpentry skills. She hopes these options will show parents the economic benefits of bringing their children back into the building.
“Many families have built living structures around their Covid reality,” she said. The challenge now is to “get out of crisis mode and start thinking about the future”.