Home > Essays > Are “Hesitant” Students Reluctant to Return, Unable to Return, or Both?

Are “Hesitant” Students Reluctant to Return, Unable to Return, or Both?

May 11, 2021

Yesterday’s NYTImes featured an article by Dana Goldstein titled “Schools are Open, But Many Families Remain Hesitant to Return”. After reading the article, I was left with the question posed in title of this post.

One data point in the article inferred that reluctance might be a factor… a reluctance based on the ways schools have treated students historically and, worse, on the way students fear they MIGHT be treated given the contentiousness and divisiveness we’ve witnessed of late. Ms. Goldstein wrote:

In March, half of Black and Hispanic children, and two-thirds of Asian-American children, were enrolled in remote school, compared with 20 percent of white students, according to the latest federal data. While most district leaders and policymakers believe that the classroom is the best place for children and teenagers to learn, many are hesitant to apply pressure to families who have lived through a traumatic year.

These two sentences provoked many questions for me:

  • Is the disparity in racial and ethnic composition of those returning to school evidence that our public schools are designed to attract whites and exclude others?
  • Or… are schools serving white students more able to provide the kinds of safety precautions parents want for their children?
  • Or… are Black and Hispanic children and Asian-American children reluctant to come back for fear of being exposed to the kinds of racist outbursts they’ve witnessed in the nightly news?
  • Or… has the pandemic exposed a deep flaw in our school systems that make them less relevant to Blacks and Hispanics?
  • Or… are Black and Hispanic parents reluctant to send their children back to school because they are aware that their demographic groups have higher incidence rates of COVID than white students?

Earlier paragraphs offered another reason many students are staying out off school: they are needed to provide child care at home OR they have emerged as the primary breadwinners in the household:

Teenagers from low-income families have taken on heavy loads of paid work, especially because so many parents lost jobs. Parents made new child care arrangements to get through the long months of school closures and part-time hours, and are now loath to disrupt established routines.

This reconfiguration of work at the family level poses a paradoxical problem for those who argue that the provision of child care is not a problem for low wage workers. A parent who decides to remain home to care for younger children while sending a teenager out to work is making a sound and rational economic and social-emotional choice. Why should she (and it is predominantly a single mother who is compelled to make this kind of choice) leave her children to be cared for by their teenaged sibling to go to work at a low wage job? The mother, after all, can provide more effective care than her teenage daughter. In a more perfect world, one where a single breadwinner earns enough to cover the costs of child-care, this decision would not be forced upon a parent. Unfortunately, we do not live in such a world.

Ms. Goldstein offers one more reason that might contribute to the reasons that Black and Hispanic children are not returning to school:

Some families do not know that local public schools have reopened, because of language barriers or lack of effective communication from districts.

Implied in this, but unstated, is that the DISTRICTS are doing the best they can to communicate but are unable to reach parents who lack internet access or too swamped with work responsibilities to open emails.

The middle of the article contains some questions schools and policy makers need to face after the pandemic concludes:

…for every child and parent who has leaped at the opportunity to return to the classroom, others changed their lives over the past year in ways that make going back to school difficult. The consequences are likely to reverberate through the education system for years, especially if states and districts continue to give students the choice to attend school remotely…

Some wonder whether the pandemic has simply upended people’s choices about how to live, with the location of schooling — like the location of office work — now up for grabs.

Posed differently, the question is this: will the current paradigm of schooling remain in place or are we about to embark on a new paradigm where how we want to live will dictate how schools— and work— functions.

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