Let’s Unpack This

Not All Black Kids Fail at Remote School

For many, school-based microaggressions get halved when a student studies at home, while grades rise and anxiety drops

A young African American girl pays attention happily to her iPad tablet, learning remotely with a pencil in hand.
A young African American girl pays attention happily to her iPad tablet, learning remotely with a pencil in hand.
Photo: RichLegg/E+/Getty Images

“White America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.”

The phrase is a juxtaposition detailing how societal problems affecting White people frequently have a disparate impact on Black people, and it’s an apt way to describe the Black experience in America — particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the Covid-19 death toll has climbed, it’s been established Black people are disproportionately impacted by the virus. Even when schools began reopening, many Black and Hispanic communities said they were keeping their kids at home because they didn’t feel safe.

Media coverage on reopening schools generally features parents and government officials fearing kids will fall behind and noting that Black schoolchildren, an already vulnerable population, will likely bear the brunt of educational setbacks because of the differences in education quality for Black and White students. What hasn’t been covered with similar zeal is how some Black parents have kept their kids home and doing remote learning not purely for fear of Covid but because their children are thriving.

One Oregon mom explained that her son, Josh, had been putting in exhausting efforts at school before the pandemic to prove to his teachers he wasn’t a “bad” kid. “I just wanted to show them I was better,” Josh says in an interview with NPR. Now, his confidence has grown with virtual learning. His mom tells him, “You’re not the model. They have to do better to make you feel like you are seen and heard.”

This makes me think back to my own school memories, where two things stick out. One is the “twice as good to go half as far” speech my mom gave me after I got in trouble for “talking too much” in third grade. It’s something I think a lot of kids like Josh would relate to. The other is from when I was a senior in high school, and a substitute teacher for my AP English class pointed at me and told a White classmate, “He’s probably not going to make it in college because he’ll end up getting someone pregnant.” I can’t completely assume my Blackness was the reason for him sharing this hypothesis about my trajectory, but there were hardly any other factors he could draw from considering we were basically strangers.

Let’s survey the landscape of what it means to be a Black student in current times. Just this month, I’ve read stories about a five-year-old Black child whose White teacher made him clean a shit-filled toilet with his bare hands; middle school teachers giving Black students assignments to pretend they are a slave working on a Mississippi plantation; and Georgetown officials firing a law professor for mentioning that while there are “a few good ones,” Black students just end up at the bottom of the class.

Before pandemic virtual learning, it hadn’t occurred to me how different my grade-school life — and the lives of other Black kids — could’ve been if that ever-present danger of being Black had been removed from the experience. So I emailed a few people to ask if safety from racism, rather than just the coronavirus, inspired parents to embrace the change to remote schooling.

Tammika Dunlap said one of her kids flourished academically with virtual learning. “I’ve seen less conflict between my children and their teachers with regards to following directions and how they participate in class,” she said. Dunlap took issue with the media’s claims of “learning loss” targeted toward Black people. She pointed out that “the achievement gap between Black students and other demographics existed long before this pandemic,” and she doesn’t see it closing without “targeted mitigating measures that specifically address the structural inequalities that exist within the educational system.”

Another parent, Patricia Jackson*, believes racism played a role in her daughter’s education. Patricia changed Kristina’s school earlier in the semester because she was “psychologically terrorized.” When Kristina had a choice between going back to in-person school and virtual learning, she made it clear she preferred to stay home. While Kristina likes her new school, her mom said that “she is less trusting of the process, specifically teachers.”

Jessica Smith* kept her children home because she didn’t trust her state’s handling of the pandemic. Smith homeschooled her kids, Jake, who is 11, and Allison, who is seven. She told me her son constantly got in trouble at school, and kids told her daughter to straighten her hair and wear makeup. “I think her sense of beauty for herself suffers when she’s at school,” Smith said about Allison.

Jake, who has been in therapy since he was five for a behavioral disorder, is getting treatment that is working, and Smith said she “finally sees my Jake that’s been hiding out on and off since he was three.” She said the move to keep him home has freed her family from constantly receiving calls from teachers about Jake’s behavior and from school officials failing to realize how smart he is because they were too busy “kicking him down the line” without helping him. She said she thinks about his problems with teachers and administrators in school and whether school officials would’ve been more sympathetic to his condition or have reconsidered threatening to call the police on her Black child.

Admittedly, there’s a privilege for Black parents who make the choice to keep kids home. And for it to be truly viable, Black parents need resources and support, two things that can be difficult to come by. But it’s already difficult to think this may not be a permanent addition in the future, which begs the question: If Covid has made it easier — and also a necessity — to closely monitor our kids’ education, and you can afford to do so, how does one go back to normal?

Black kids excelling in virtual classrooms during a pandemic still leaves issues of privilege, class, and access that are rife for exploration. But even in times of darkness, it helps to know some Black kids are getting to see the light.

(*Names changed to protect privacy.)

Read more from Garfield Hylton when you follow Momentum.

Award-winning TV news journalist. Freelance writer. Mad question asker.

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