All across the country, there is a fierce debate on whether to reopen schools or maintain virtual learning. Although there are numerous education stakeholders, one group is taking up all the oxygen and space: teacher unions. Although parents, grandparents, children, social workers, bus drivers and school employees are all impacted by school closures, their voices are being muted.
No one wants to put educators or children in jeopardy, but maintaining the status quo is yielding the thing that we have been trying to avoid: harm. Children are falling behind, missing critical opportunities to connect with other children and suffering under the weight of poverty. Families are having to cope with one leg of a three-legged stool kicked out from under them. That stool is funding.
Instead, school districts around the country are asking Black and working-class families the wrong question. The question is not, “Do you want your child in remote learning or at school in person?” That is an impossible choice.
How does one choose between sending their child to a school they do not trust in a neighborhood with high COVID rates, and keeping a child at home sitting in front of a screen for hours on end? Neither of those choices are desirable, safe or healthy. We are missing alternatives that meet families’ needs while keeping children safe. We are also missing the funding to make change possible.
As teachers and teacher unions resist reopening schools, they are unfairly suggesting that parents do not understand. Parents get it. They understand the difficulty facing families and educators alike. But because of negative perceptions of poor and working-class families, they are being ignored in a scenario that looks less like cooperation and more like paternalism.
Regardless of what we do, we must ensure that families have more resources. For instance, the Black and working-class families choosing virtual school doesn’t mean they have low educational expectations. Selecting the virtual option doesn’t mean that parents want less education attainment for their children. This is a false choice. It is important to understand that when parents opt for virtual learning, they are prioritizing limiting their children’s exposure to COVID and other factors — such as police in schools — that compromise their children’s health and safety. Parents who choose in-person instruction are also doing so due to a lack of funding and support for online learning, especially if they are working class.
Here’s the question we should be asking parents in order to discern what they want and need: If you had financial support, would you hire tutors, buy curriculum to homeschool your child and/or meet other education-related needs? I believe most parents would respond with a resounding yes.
Teacher unions and district officials have taken up all the space in the reopening conversation. They are not the only stakeholders. Kids are depending on adults to come up with solutions. You cannot tell me that putting children on a screen for six to eight hours a day is “public school.” It’s not healthy, and it’s not school.
Furthermore, single parents are especially having a hard time trying to balance keeping a roof over their families heads and virtual school. The current path is unsustainable for single parents, working-class families and families living in poverty.
When we have data showing children are absent and failing when school is remote, and we have teacher unions suing to block a return to school, it’s time for families to have direct access to education dollars. Wealthy and middle-class families are hiring help or paying for pods, while many Black and other students of color are left with nothing but screen time.
This binary conversation on school reopening versus remaining fully virtual presents an opportunity for Black families to push for self-determination. If we work together, we can exert community control over how schooling occurs from here on out. Now is the time for Black parents to organize a massive withdrawal from traditional schools and organize our lives to homeschool our own children.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is host of the podcast RealTalk with Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, director of activism for brightbeam and the founder of Racial Justice Now.