President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to safely reopen schools within his first 100 days in office. But school closures have been a complicated experience for these four Black and Latino families.
“Every single day is a battle.”
That’s how Maria Elena Novo describes remote learning since suddenly becoming her son’s main teacher last spring. A third grader in the Oakland Unified School District in California, David hates Zoom; Novo has to hound him to turn his camera on.
“I sit with him every day to make sure he’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” she told COURIER, but “I can’t push him too hard because he gets frustrated.”
Education experts have argued for months that remote learning would exacerbate the racial opportunity gap. In fact, a recent report found that Black and Latino households still have less access to the technology that enables distance learning. Kids in these households are also twice as likely as white students to have had no live contact with teachers—because so many live in districts that have been fully remote since March.
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What’s even more concerning, according to the report, is that students of color are projected to be six to 12 months behind in terms of learning loss, while white students are projected to lose four to eight months. This could translate to a bigger reduction in earnings power down the road.
Despite these racialized gaps, most Black and and non-Black Latino parents are wary of sending their children back to school in-person this winter because of how hard their communities have been hit by the pandemic. Experts predict this month could be the worst the US has seen in terms of infections and deaths, due to Christmas and New Year-related travel and gatherings.
Last month, President-elect Joe Biden vowed to bring the coronavirus pandemic under enough control during his first 100 days in office to be able to reopen schools safely. He plans to call on all Americans to voluntarily wear a face mask during those 100 days, and has committed to administering 100 million shots of the coronavirus vaccine during that same time period.
“It should be a national priority to get our kids back into school and keep them in school,” Biden said during a Dec. 8 event in Delaware. “If Congress provides the funding, we need to protect students, educators and staff. If states and cities put strong public health measures in place that we all follow, then my team will work to see that the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days.”
COURIER spoke with four parents from across the country about remote learning, the sacrifices they’ve made to help their children navigate it, and their feelings on school reopening.
Maria Elena Lovo, Oakland
Eight-year-old David Lovo has multiple health problems, as well as academic struggles. In February, right before shelter-in-place took effect in the Bay Area, David was admitted to the hospital for anxiety and depression after saying he wanted to take his own life.
That’s when his mother Maria Elena Lovo discovered he was being bullied at school. To make matters worse, Lovo said, his teacher at the time had not provided him the additional support he needed due to learning disabilities—support that was legally mandated as part of his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).
David would often come home from school crying last year, Lovo said, and “was also peeing on himself because the levels of anxiety were so bad that he didn’t care.” Nonetheless, his teacher, she said, “wasn’t reading any of the signs.”
When David was released from the hospital, his doctors recommended Lovo keep him home for a few weeks. The shelter-in-place order came a week later, and David never went back to school.
David’s third grade teacher has been much more responsive—she has even come to their house to give him extra help—but he’s still behind academically and depressed. “His self-esteem issues are so bad that he needs someone to remind him that he’s able and capable,” Lovo said. So although she really can’t afford it, Lovo is paying for private tutoring.
“I’m a single mom, I’m Latina, David is Black, and this is third grade. Fourth grade is coming up,” she explained. In other words, the deck is already stacked against them, and she’s worried about him falling further behind.
Lovo desperately needs David to go back to school in person, but it’s too risky for his health. David’s doctors say his allergies and asthma leave him vulnerable to pneumonia or bronchitis; he will have to wait until everyone is vaccinated before he can go back to school safely.
In the meantime, however, her ability to work has been curtailed by having to stay home with him. In the spring, she had to leave her part-time job at a preschool because she didn’t have child care. Since then, she’s been relying on her savings, working only 10 hours a week as a nanny, and making food to sell out of her home. What she earns is still not nearly enough to sustain the family.
Thankfully, she said, she’s had the support of some fellow mom friends and others who’ve helped out by dropping off food or taking care of David for a few hours to give her a break.
Thea Browne-Dennis, Washington, DC
Thea Browne-Dennis has two daughters, Ama (eighth grade) and Jahkai (10th grade), who have been in distance learning since last spring. The girls attend DC International School, a public charter that offers sixth to twelfth grade. Their experience with remote learning has been mixed: On one hand, the girls like not having to get up early to get ready for school. However, both the girls and Browne-Dennis have become frustrated with the volume of work the school gives them.
Ama and Jakhai are online from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day, with only a short lunch break in the middle. To make sure the students are paying attention, they are required to submit an assignment for each class by 5 p.m. For Ama, that means completing eight assignments every day, and she only has an hour and a half to finish them after online classes are over. She even has to upload videos of herself exercising for her physical education class.
She’s an introvert, Browne-Dennis explained, and hates having her video on during online classes. “She wants to quit—drop out of school.”
The amount of busy work and the requirement to upload assignments to different platforms is really indicative, Browne-Dennis said, of the way “the school system … really just trains your children to be workers.” She tries to counteract that by prioritizing her daughters’ emotional well-being over their academic progress. “I let them know, this is not that serious,” and that while it’s important to get good grades, “if you’re sobbing and crying over this assignment, then it’s not that important.”
Browne-Dennis works a full-time job at the capital’s water company managing construction projects and capital improvements; she also sells her own line of natural skin products. Between juggling her own work and business, and overseeing her daughters’ schooling, her days are often long and stressful.
Still, she’s found the pandemic to be a blessing in disguise, as it’s allowed her to create better work-life balance and made her feel like a better mom. “I’m very appreciative of COVID,” Browne-Dennis said, acknowledging how absurd that might sound. “I don’t think I realized how much time I did not spend with my children.” Now, she gets “to hug up on them a little bit more.”
Browne-Dennis added that she doesn’t plan to send her daughters back to school in-person until the pandemic is over.
Rafael Collazo, South Jersey
Rafael Collazo—the political director for UnidosUS, the country’s largest Latino nonprofit advocacy organization—lives in a New Jersey suburb outside Philadelphia with his family. His two sons, Troy (11) and Maxwell (9), attend a public school in Sicklerville, New Jersey, which until the recent surge, had given families the option to do hybrid learning (a mix of in-person and online activities, which allows for more social distancing within classrooms) or all virtual. Collazo’s family chose to stay virtual, though he said the local schools have done a good job of mitigating the virus in the fall; there have been a few isolated cases, but no outbreaks.
The whole family has been at home since the spring, with both Collazo and his wife working virtually, a situation for which they count themselves fortunate, as they can provide their sons academic support. “I just think about the kids whose parents have to leave the house to work and the kids are left on their own … I can only imagine how it is for EL [English learner] families.”
Collazo was also cognizant of the situation of many other Latino families who have difficulty accessing WiFi, adding, “It just feels like the gap widens because our kids have a lot more resources than others.”
Collazo and his wife—like most parents—have had to make some sacrifices. For example, his sons have lunch breaks at different times, which often overlap with work Zoom meetings. “It just created another part-time job,” he said, and sometimes they can’t get their own work done until the kids are in bed.
Maxwell in particular needs a lot of supervision because he gets distracted, Collazo explained, especially since he now has the ability to chat with his friends while in class. “He just wants to engage.”
Collazo and his wife were planning on sending their sons back to school two days a week in January because of New Jersey’s low transmission rates among children and the state’s relatively strict measures. But now everything’s up in the air because of the winter surge.
However, Collazo said, because they feel the school district has done a good job of containing the virus, they are open to that option if it’s available to them. “We know it’s not benefitting them to be here all day,” he said.
Mekeisha Madden Toby, Los Angeles
Entertainment journalist Mekeisha Madden Toby lives in Los Angeles with her husband Al and two kids—Zoe, a fourth grader in the LA Unified School District, and a preschooler, Teddy. From Zoe’s perspective, distance learning has been going pretty well—much better than when the public health crisis first began. Like most kids, Zoe likes not having to get up early, worrying about what she’s going to wear, and having to pack a lunch. “That pressure has lifted,” Madden Toby said.
That said, distractions have been a problem for the 10-year-old, particularly since she discovered the online game Among Us, Madden Toby said, which she sometimes tries to play during her online classes. Zoe also likes to listen to music while she does her work, which usually means having a YouTube video on.
“The screens are a temptation in and of themselves,” said Madden Toby, “and unless you’re standing there, which I don’t always have the time to do, and monitoring every hour, every minute, they’re gonna slip off into YouTube or Among Us or chatting with their friends on Messenger. Despite your best efforts, it just happens.”
As a freelance and contract writer, Madden Toby’s ability to do her own work has been significantly diminished—as she’s not on salary, she only gets paid for the hours she puts in. “I don’t have a rhythm anymore,” she said. “For me, it’s a myriad of frustrations because I have a small window of time to get stuff done work-wise … I don’t get any time to myself.”
Her husband Al also works from home, but since he’s an NFL editor, he’s been very busy in the fall. As a result, the burden of monitoring Zoe has been 100% on Madden Toby (thankfully, she said, Teddy has gone back to daycare).
“It’s mom by default,” she said. “Even on our best days, something has to give, and unfortunately that’s usually what I’m trying to do.”
Although she knows a few other families where the burden of distance learning is more evenly distributed between mom and dad, the majority are in a similar situation to her own. And that’s why she’s anxious for schools to reopen—even if it’s just one day a week for Zoe. But the COVID-19 situation in Los Angeles is particularly bad right now, so Madden Toby is resigned to the fact that schools probably won’t reopen until next fall.
Regardless of their feelings about sending their children back to school in-person, the fact is that the burden of distance learning is disproportionately falling on women like Lovo, Browne-Dennis, and Madden Toby. The gendered inequality of remote learning is rarely discussed as a negative byproduct—in addition to the many harms to kids—of schools being closed.
While mothers of all races and classes are taking a hit professionally, Black, Latina, and immigrant moms are faring the worst.
As the writer of a recent USA Today piece points out: “Experts forecast that loss of skills, tenure and income among women of color will shape the U.S. economy for years to come by making it more difficult for moms of color to re-enter the workforce, earn the same amount as their white counterparts and reach supervisor and management positions.”