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In CMS, Race Shapes Likelihood That Students Will Opt For In-Person Return

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Ann Doss Helms
A socially distanced third-grade class at Cotswold Elementary before CMS returned to fully remote instruction.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools resumes in-person classes, there will be racial differences in who goes back and who chooses to stay home.

CMS recently released racial breakdowns on the students whose parents have enrolled them in Full Remote Academy. Those numbers show that about three-quarters of the district's 36,000 white students will return to in-person classes second semester — a significantly higher percentage than other racial groups.

CMS has about 51,000 Black students, who are split almost evenly between in-person classes and staying in remote instruction second semester.

The racial implications of those choices have been debated for weeks.

"The majority of those individuals that are pushing for this politicized decision it seems now — (to be) in school, in school, in school — are mostly affluent, white parents," said Dee Rankin, education chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus and a member of the CMS Equity Committee.

He and others have questioned why some of those parents say they’re speaking on behalf of disadvantaged Black and brown students, as well as their own kids.

Rankin is a Black CMS parent whose own children are signed up to return in person. He says families of color may doubt that schools will keep their children safe, based on a history of racism. And he says the white parents pushing for a rapid return aren’t helping.

"You wonder, in causing that distrust, what’s the reason behind that? Do they really care about me as a Black student or me as a Black parent or me as the Black community, period?" Rankin said.

Asian Students Are Most Likely To Stay Home

Because of the way CMS has provided the data, the percent of participation in Full Remote Academy is not precise. District staff gave board members a racial breakdown of the 57,552 students enrolled in Full Remote Academy for second semester, but has not provided a racial breakdown of the other students currently enrolled. The only racial totals available are from the first-month diversity report.

But the numbers indicate trends that are sparking discussion about how the pandemic plays out in different communities.

The racial group most likely to opt out of in-person classes is Asian students. CMS has about 10,000 Asian students and about 60% are signed up for Full Remote Academy, compared with about 25% of white students.

John Chen, chairman of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, says that doesn’t surprise him. Chen is Chinese American. He consulted with leaders of the Indian and Vietnamese communities after WFAE asked about the numbers.

Of course, no racial group is monolithic, and family choices are complex. But Chen said they came up with several cultural reasons that might lead Asian families to keep their children home.

"The families, the parents, in general, are very attentive to their children’s progress: Are they doing enough homework, and are they reading extra material, and so on, so forth," Chen said. "Because of that ... they do have a good internal support system within their family."

That, along with parents who are often tech-savvy, can make remote learning easier, Chen said. And he said the Indian and Vietnamese leaders mentioned a reason to avoid in-person classes: "Many of them have multi-generational households: The kids, the parents and the grandparents. So, because of that, they are extremely careful about protecting the elders."

Chen noted that the Asian community includes refugees who may not fit his general descriptions.

"Those kids, I believe, they would try to go to school as much as they can," he said.

Hispanic Students In The Middle

Almost 40% of the district's 38,000 Hispanic students are signed up to stay home second semester — a lower proportion than Asian or Black students but higher than white students.

Susana Jerez, family programs director for Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, says the families she works with tend to have language and technology barriers. That can make remote learning difficult.

"My daughter teaches at Vance," Jerez said. "And she has found that the majority of the students that are having most trouble, especially with connecting and resolving problems, are the children of Hispanic background."

But Jerez says Hispanic families also tend to include vulnerable elderly relatives. She says she has spoken with parents who want to keep their children home, but they’ve been confused by the process. Even messages translated into Spanish can be hard to digest, she says.

"Some of the people wanted to choose remote and did not know how to," she said.

White Parents Speak Up, Face Questions

White school board members and parents have been among the most vocal supporters of bringing kids back in person as quickly as possible. Board member Sean Strain is among them.

Strain says some parents pushing for in-person classes may be motivated by a political agenda that says the virus is a hoax — something he, as a Republican, does not agree with. But he says the facts support a conclusion that the benefits of in-person school far outweigh the risk of students catching COVID-19.

Melisa Klink, the mother of a kindergartener at Waddell Language Academy, made that case at the Dec. 8 school board meeting. She cited studies in other districts showing that disadvantaged students suffer the most from being denied in-person classes.

"It has been 270 days since some of these kids have stepped foot in the classroom, and we’ve reached the point where we can’t patch them up," she said at the meeting.

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Later in that meeting, school board member Jennifer De La Jara urged people not to try to speak for disadvantaged communities. And Klink says she was especially disheartened when Justin Parmenter — a teacher at her child’s school — posted on social media that white parents threatening to pull their children out of schools during a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting people of color equates to "weaponized white privilege.”

Klink says she’s discouraged that efforts to advocate for her daughter have turned into “some ugly racial thing.” She may be white, she says, but she has struggled with poverty.

De La Jara, the board member, said recently that her point was that insisting in-person classes are best for disadvantaged students can be seen as a judgment on parents who choose to keep their kids home.

"I was just trying to just simply say that they’ve already spoken, so instead of us framing our argument on their behalf, let’s respect their choice and stop sending them the subtle message that somehow they’ve made the wrong choice," she said.

De La Jara says she’s aware that racial categories don’t define a family. She’s white and married to an immigrant from Peru. Their kids are considered Hispanic — and plan to return in person.

Often, she says, it’s family circumstances that shape views on in-person versus remote classes. All racial groups include people who are financially secure … and those who aren’t.

"When you have health insurance and you have disposable income in your pocket, it changes the way you view the virus," De La Jara said.

CMS students who are not enrolled in Full Remote Academy are scheduled to return to their schools Jan. 19 — but only if district leaders deem it safe. For now, the numbers continue to rise. The school board meets Tuesday.

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