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Schools Have Reopened, But Some Black Students Aren’t Going Back

Why COVID’s school closures permanently changed how some Black families think about education.

A growing number of Black families have abandoned brick-and-mortar education for their children in favor of online schools and home schooling. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

For Angela Carter Iwu, her youngest child’s first year of school was fraught with frustrations. As a relatively quiet 5-year-old, his tricky transition to the rhythms of kindergarten was further complicated by weekly phone calls from the teacher recounting to Iwu his shortcomings as a student. Her highly acclaimed suburban-Houston school district failed to measure up to her expectations out of the gate.

“When it comes to people of color, especially young boys, if they don’t fit that mold when they come in, they have a lot of trouble serving them,” said Iwu. “And then the answer is, ‘Well, let’s hold them back.’”

She swiftly rejected the school’s assessment that her son was not ready for first grade and placed him in private school. His grades improved, but it was just the first stop in a merry-go-round of schooling options Iwu has tried in the past few years as she sought a learning environment that was nurturing and pandemic-safe while protecting him from the burden of racial biases. 

Eventually, they settled on an online public school that offers a self-directed learning environment with more flexibility and autonomy than the neighborhood school. Iwu found a permanent work-from-home job to accommodate the alternative learning setup.

“He loves it,” she said. “I ask him, ‘Do you want to go back to school?’ and his answer is always, ‘No, I want to keep doing this.’”

Iwu and her son joined the parade of Black families who have abandoned brick-and-mortar education amid the roller coaster of pandemic-disrupted learning. Black parents, by and large, have been the most resistant to returning to public school buildings since the COVID shutdown in March 2020. When the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed parents of school-age kids nationwide in July 2020, only 46% of Black parents strongly or somewhat agreed that schools should reopen for all students in the fall — the lowest percentage of all racial and ethnic groups.

For many, the wars over mask mandates and COVID-related closures was the final straw in a series of challenges presented by traditional public schooling, including racial disparities in discipline, white-washed curricula, and rigid environments that fostered biases against Black students. 

The pandemic provided a natural opportunity for some Black families to withdraw their children from traditional schools altogether in favor of alternative approaches to education: homeschooling, online learning, and “microschools,” among others. But now, even as signs of normalcy have returned to traditional schools, some Black families haven’t. Their new normal means breaking old norms.

Some, like Iwu, have opted for K-12 online schools, which supporters distinguish from the remote schooling that many families experienced in the months after COVID hit. Unlike the rigid structure of her district’s virtual program, Iwu said the teaching format at Texas Connections Academy at Houston — a tuition-free online school accredited by the Texas Education Agency — is a blend of asynchronous and live virtual classes, giving her son access to a public school curriculum without the compliance culture of traditional classrooms.

“He’s not running out the door to be at school by 8 a.m. or be tardy,” she explained, or shuffling from classroom to classroom all day. “He sees that he can get what he needs without seven hours in school, so that’s his favorite part.”

Other families have opted to home-school — a practice with a long tradition in the Black community that spiked in the lead-up to the first full school year of the pandemic. According to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis, the percentage of Black households nationally that were home schooling increased nearly five fold between spring and fall 2020 — from 3.3% in April to 16.1% by October. The Census Bureau refined the questionnaire during the survey period to distinguish between home-schoolers and students participating in virtual schooling from home while enrolled in a public or private school. Still, the growth marks a sharp rise in Black families pulling their children from conventional schooling.

Raegan Mayfield, a mother of two from Cobb County, Georgia, chose home schooling after hopscotching from public to private school. All was well at her highly rated local school until her oldest son entered an overcrowded classroom in second grade. Preferring more personalized learning, she moved him to a private Christian school with smaller class sizes. He thrived, but the significant lack of diversity among students and teachers concerned Mayfield, along with the curriculum that lacked cultural relevance and depth.

“We were at home adding resources to [incorporate] more diverse and inclusive topics … doing the groundwork to make sure he had a very holistic view of what he was learning,” she said. “At that point, we decided if we’re doing all of this work and sending him to school, it might be a good idea to actually pull him out and do home schooling.”

The family’s deliberations coincided with the onset of the pandemic, reinforcing her resolve. With a newborn on the way and a grandparent in the home, taking extra precautions to minimize exposure to the virus sealed the decision. Embarking on this new journey has brought a number of unanticipated benefits, Mayfield said, including connecting with the Heritage Homeschoolers of Cobb County, an established group of Black families that have chosen to home-school their children.

“Being able to find him a student community that looks like him, that celebrates our history and celebrates who he is as a little Black boy, has been phenomenal,” she said. “It has really helped in terms of his growth and his confidence.”

The ability to inject a multicultural perspective into her fifth-grader’s schoolwork was also an upside. “We went deep into the Harlem Renaissance this year, something that would not have been on the curriculum at his school. We did World War II and really dug into the internment experience of Japanese Americans,” Mayfield said, emphasizing the capacity for her son to interrogate, question, and think critically in a home-school setting. 

Prior to COVID, Black parents’ desire for schooling that was more personal, engaging, and anchored in Black-centered pedagogy helped explain the home schooling trend. What accelerated this choice in the last two years is perhaps what Mayfield experienced: the push toward a better mode of educating Black youth, and the pull from seemingly unsafe, COVID-filled school buildings.

With Black parents like Iwu and Mayfield exiting, traditional schools are losing a valuable resource — a group of parents who have the time to be actively involved in their kids’ education — said Eupha Jeanne Daramola, a doctoral candidate in urban education policy at the University of Southern California. It’s also a parent group that often feels alienated by school systems, she added.

“Schools don’t necessarily value the input of Black parents to the same extent that they value the input of white parents,” she said. “There can be this political pressure to listen to the input of white parents. And that same perceived political cost is not always allocated to Black parents.” This is readily seen in the recent ideological battles over teaching about race and racism, and removing COVID protocols in schools.

That shortsightedness can force Black parents to seek alternatives. Over the 2020-21 school year, Daramola studied Black- and Latinx-led parent groups that designed programs to address long-standing inequities in their children’s education. Freed from the constraints of school bureaucracy, they created a “learning hub” and “microschools” staffed with Black tutors teaching culturally rich materials — something they had previously fought to implement in their traditional schools. In Oakland, the learning hub provided in-person academic support while students were enrolled in distance learning. In Phoenix, microschools provided personalized learning to small groups of students of multiple ages in one environment. 
Daramola sees clear parallels between her research and Black families now striking out on their own.

“I would imagine that parents are seeing a moment where they can take ownership over their child’s education and not necessarily have to deal with some of the same barriers that they faced with being heard in traditional school systems,” she said. The moment has left some Black parents to conclude, “School as I was doing it before the pandemic wasn’t necessarily working for my family. What are the other ways I could educate my children?”

After weighing the variables, Mayfield is committed to home schooling her older son for the next few years through middle school but will accommodate his wish to return to a brick-and-mortar school for high school. “He’s an athlete,” she said matter-of-factly. Team sports is one aspect of schooling that she cannot replicate.

But the education of her 8-month-old infant son will follow a different course.

“I don’t anticipate ever putting him in school at this point,” she said. “It will be permanent for him. … He won’t know anything different.”