Why this school district didn’t reopen amid COVID-19 | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools | #parenting | #parenting | #kids

Angela Grier is determined to give her daughter Marnina the one thing she wants more than anything: an eighth grade graduation ceremony, in person.

Marnina’s school is planning to hold its official ceremony online, and Angela didn’t want her youngest child to head off to high school with so little fanfare. So she’s going to rent a small venue and borrow a podium. There will be a column of balloons and, hopefully, a few friends. And Marnina will walk across a stage and get her diploma.

“You’ve got to do something for these babies,” Angela said. “They’ve been through so much.”

For Marnina, that “so much” has been a year of remote school that’s looked like a lonelier semblance of her former life. Zoom classes last six hours a day, and she doesn’t talk much with classmates, especially without her cheerleading squad or track team. There have been a few meltdowns and mental health breaks.

Marnina knows that the next few months of school won’t look much different. Officials in her small school district in south suburban Chicago, Dolton West, recently made the call not to reopen buildings at all this school year.

Nationally, that makes the district of 2,100 students an outlier. A year into the pandemic, more schools are reopening their doors for in-person learning every week. Others plan to follow soon. State and federal pressure to do so is mounting. By one estimate, only one in five students nationwide attends a district where schools are still fully remote.

The reasons why Dolton West chose not to reopen school buildings are complex, but boil down to this: School leaders wanted to reduce uncertainty during an unpredictable year in which Black communities like theirs have borne the brunt of a deadly virus. Here, there’s been no public clamoring for schools to reopen. A few other school districts in the area, including one where Marnina will attend high school next year, made the same call.

Supporters of the decision say school officials are doing what most families wanted and prioritizing the safety of school staff who have had limited access to the vaccine — instead of bowing to pressure from politicians and public health officials who have a limited understanding of Dolton, its schools, and its families.

But that choice has brought hardship, too, particularly for students, and families are more divided about reopening than district officials have let on. It’s an illustration of just how fraught decisions about schools and safety have been this year in every corner of the country, not just places with high-profile reopening battles.

For one Black community, an early decision

On a Tuesday in late February, the disembodied voice of a Dolton West school board member called their virtual meeting to order, launching a monthly ritual that began nearly a year earlier. That evening, the board had a particularly high-stakes question on the agenda: whether students should return in-person.

Superintendent Kevin Nohelty ticked through his rationale. Virus rates were falling, but concerns about new COVID variants were growing. Few in their community had gotten the vaccine. Survey results were in, and most families and staff who replied wanted to stick with remote learning.

“I want to make sure that I’m doing what I believe is the best for our community,” he would later say.

Several board members agreed. But Kim Adkins, who has four grandchildren in the district, was vocal about her concerns. Almost nine in 10 students qualify for free and reduced price meals in the district, and most students lagged behind their peers statewide in reading and math before the pandemic. She worried staying virtual would compound existing disparities.

“I think our younger children need to be together to have their social development,” she said. “Let’s be honest with one another that this is not helping our children at all.”

Nohelty promised that plans for summer school, likely with an in-person option, would be coming soon. Adkins came around, and the board’s vote to stay remote for the rest of the school year was unanimous.

Safety wasn’t the only argument Nohelty made. He also felt the district’s virtual instruction was strong and engaging, and he and other educators worried switching to part-time in-person school would disrupt that. Elsewhere, when school districts have reopened part-time, it’s often meant a chaotic experience that educators say especially shortchanges remote learners. Nationally, parents with that setup have been the most dissatisfied with the quality of their children’s education.

“There is so much going on all around us,” Nohelty said later. “The one thing that I had the most control of is how we deliver that instruction.”

LeShele Silas-Armour, the head of Dolton West’s teachers union, inside her home in February 2021.
Sebastián Hidalgo for Chalkbeat

School leaders don’t always get to make that call. In at least seven states, officials are compelling districts to reopen their doors. Illinois is not among them. So here, in a school district where 94% of students are Black, as are more than half of teachers, the decision fell to a superintendent who saw remote learning as the path to providing safety and consistency, and a school board that trusted the superintendent and did not want the community to shoulder any additional risk of spreading the virus.

But for all the uncertainty that decision erased, there were other doors it closed — like the ability to adapt during a fast-changing public health crisis. Across the country, other school districts have changed up their reopening plans many times over as more educators have gotten access to the vaccine and officials have struck deals with teachers unions. It’s unclear what would have happened in Dolton West because the two sides never reached the negotiation table.

“There’s still a lot of hesitancy, but our teachers are very dedicated,” said LeShele Silas-Armour, the head of Dolton West’s teachers union. She supported the decision to stay remote, but thinks if the board had decided to bring students back, educators could have reached an agreement. “If our employer says we have to go back, you have to go back.”

Many parents chose remote learning

A chorus of public health experts say the district’s caution is unwarranted. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said even where transmission is high, schools can safely offer in-person instruction with the right precautions. The new federal stimulus packages mean districts should have the money they need to add safety measures like COVID testing, and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona is pushing schools to open quickly.

“We know there are inequities to in-person learning,” Cardona said recently, pointing to new federal data that show many fewer Black, Hispanic, and Asian students are going to school in person five days a week. “America, that is our charge: to safely reopen schools as quickly as possible.”

Federal education officials have said little about how they plan to engage with school districts that aren’t reopening, though Cardona is expected to visit some schools that have faced “roadblocks and challenges” on an upcoming national tour.

But to Sugar Robinson, Dolton West’s decision is a sign that the district listened to families like his. He was among the two thirds of families who recently told the district they preferred to stick with remote learning through May. He doesn’t want his sons going back into school buildings until the fall, and wants the district to use the summer to prepare.

“It doesn’t make any sense to rush the children back to school when they’ve already been out half the year,” he said. “What is a little bit more time being patient?”

The district has spent tens of thousands of dollars on additional cleaning, air purification systems, and fever detection cameras. Even so, some parents told Nohelty no amount of safety precautions would persuade them while the pandemic was still a threat.

“It’s scary,” said Diannese Dokes, a parent who has five children in the district. She wanted her kids to stay remote for safety reasons, even though she was unsatisfied with the quality of their remote lessons and was frustrated by the laptops the district provided. “It’s kind of hard to even say what would make me comfortable.”

Perhaps a third of families wanted some in-person learning, a recent survey showed. But they weren’t an outspoken contingent. No parents spoke out against the plan to stay remote at the board meeting. Just one sent an email to register their concerns, Nohelty told the board.

The wariness of Black parents to return to in-person school has shown up time and again on national polls. They’ve been much more likely to say schools should weigh the health risks to students and teachers when making school reopening decisions. Black parents have also been much less likely than Hispanic or white parents to choose in-person learning when it’s offered.

Dr. Theresa Chapple, an epidemiologist who’s advised more than two dozen school districts about their pandemic operations, notes that the school reopening calculus hasn’t looked the same in mostly Black and Hispanic communities where the death toll from COVID has been higher and parents had concerns about school safety and cleanliness before the pandemic.

Years of systemic racism and under-funding of schools has contributed to Black parents’ distrust. Until recently, Illinois had one of the most inequitable school funding systems in the country, and Dolton West schools were among the most under-funded in the state.

“If we’re talking about weighing the risk versus the benefits, we need to realize that that looks different depending on who’s on the scale,” Chapple said.

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