Word in Black is a news collaborative representing leading Black publishers in the U.S. This article represents a cross-section of its work on the impact of COVID-19 on K-12 education.
Normally Karen Shepard would sit down with her three kids at the end of the day and ask them how was school? The Smiths, Charles and Debra, would gently remind their two daughters to get cracking on their homework. Tamika Hall would rely on her three school-age kids to do clean up after dinner and prepare for the next day, while she got her three preschoolers ready for bed. That was before COVID-19.
As the pandemic has upended lives and norms, nowhere is the upheaval and uncertainly more pronounced than around the delivery and exercise of education. African American parents across the country are struggling, some more than others, to make sure their children receive a quality education, be it totally remote, hybrid – days on and off – or fully in person, even as they themselves navigate and juggle their own challenges around employment, be it working from home or having to go into work.
“I am stressed out to the max,” Shepherd, a single mother of four, ages 13, 12, 8, and 5, told The AFRO. “I have a friend helping, but she has kids herself. I can’t afford to pay anyone full-time.” Shephard, who is still employed as an outreach specialist at a DC medical office, but has to work in person, made the commitment to remote learning to protect her children from the virus. “I became a full-time teacher without pay just because I want my children to succeed,” said Shepherd. “I can’t trust others with my kid’s safety. They brought bed bugs to both my kids schools last year – but it’s safe for COVID-19? I’m using my own judgment – even if I have to quit my job.”
But each day she asks herself the same question: “Who’s gonna watch my kids?”
Childcare is a precious commodity since that industry itself is going through a supply and demand crisis, fueled by the fact many child care workers are African American or people of color and those communities have been disproportionally hit hard by COVID-19. Millions of African American parents, who would usually rely on family or, before and after school programs to oversee their kids while they worked, are finding they have to become more involved and creative in tending to their own children. They have to now assume the not so coveted roles of truant officer, hall monitor, proctor and teacher’s assistant.
According to the Smiths, who live in Seattle, they are planning to divide their work week into an alternating schedule of two-days-on, three-days off, where each parent is responsible for scheduling their day and workload around the schoolwork of their two girls, Jess, 9 and Jennifer, 7. “Charles and I alternate days,” Debra, who works as a paralegal, told the Seattle Medium. “For example, one week I’m responsible for three days of availability to help with schoolwork and then two days off. We alternate days each week,” she added. “When it comes to the everyday chores, cleanliness and practicing social distancing, we do this daily as a family.”
In Hall’s household, it’s all on her. The marketing manager was shopping for furniture to convert part of her apartment into a classroom for her three school-age kids when The Amsterdam News caught up with her. “I have some errands as I have decided to create a classroom type environment inside my apartment,” said Hall, while scouting the shelves at the IKEA in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “I’m trying to set up the classroom…on the hunt for L-shaped desks.”
The new abnormal is especially poignant for Hall, who lost an aunt to COVID-19 on April, 7, and her own father to gastric cancer nine days after. “I came home from Havana the week the kids’ school closed and I had to quarantine,” said Hall. “Then, I had to leave to go take care of my dad. Because of COVID restrictions, his care team [from the Visiting Nurse Service of New York] wouldn’t do home visits. I had to care for him myself with a comfort box of drugs and virtual visits. One aide would still come for about four hours a day but that was it. We were on our own.”
In some cities and communities, some schools including charter schools, where resources, connectivity and hardware including laptops, are not as limited as in public schools, are meeting the challenges posed by the pandemic to reimagine education from the nuts and bolts of delivery so that no one feels alone.
Since COVID-19 pulled the plug on live, in-school learning last spring, two predominantly Black charter school systems in Sacramento have turned negatives into positives, chaos into community. They’ve made it clear that without sustained parental involvement, the horse won’t run, the plane won’t fly. When it comes to remote learning, Fortune School of Education and St. Hope Public Schools are making sure no child, parent, guardian or grandparent is left behind. In addition to free meals, the school systems are providing free Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hotspots, low-cost Internet, headsets, tech support, teaching assistants and behavioral and psychological counselors. They are also providing well-trained teachers who have learned to be patient with themselves as well as their scholars and families.
For generations, African Americans often felt that the education deck was stacked against them — inferior schools, higher rates of discipline and suspensions, fewer resources, teachers that seemed not to understand or believe in them.
“Black students remain the lowest-performing subgroup in California other than special needs students,” Dr. Margaret Fortune, founder and CEO of eight predominantly Black K-12 charter schools in Sacramento serving 1,904 students and another in San Bernardino serving 395, explained to The Sacramento Observer. “We’re 65 percent African American and 26 percent Latino and mixed race — most of them low income.”
The demands of distance learning have prompted more parental engagement than ever. “It’s not uncommon for us to have 100 parents on a Zoom call with the principal to teach them how to use the curriculum,” Dr. Fortune said. “We don’t expect you to become an overnight tech expert.”
But in the time worn tradition of making a way out of no way, African American parents, teachers and administrators are striving to meet the demands of the day. “When we held our kindergarten, 5th and 8th grade graduation ceremonies, instead of 100 parents we had 11,000 people from all over the country, and even got a shout out from comedian Tracy Morgan. It’s a level of celebrating the individual scholar that goes beyond the four walls of the multipurpose room, and our parents are communicating with parents from all over the country,” added Dr. Fortune. “We’ve gone beyond our initial goal of keeping our school community together in a healthy and joyful way and now are adding to our academic rigor, so kids don’t fall into COVID-19 learning gaps.”
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