When Virtual School Means a Respite From Racism

“You’re out of your mind if you think I’m ever going back to school.”

Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price, a Black mother of two who lives in Florham Park, N.J., initially laughed off the pronouncement her 13-year-old made in March after the Covid-19 pandemic closed the state’s schools. But it became clear that her daughter, Saige, was serious. So Ms. Aryee-Price started to revisit the things she’d heard her daughter say in response to her daily “How was school?” queries.

“Whether it was other students saying that she’s too loud, or adults saying she has anger-management issues, it was always something,” Ms. Aryee-Price said, describing the subtle bigotry that Saige experienced but was unable to articulate and name.

Since beginning online learning, she explained, Saige has been liberated from hearing negative tropes about Black girls in the lunchroom and hallways. For one, the eighth grader can control her exposure to racial microaggressions. When a classmate wore a “Make America Great Again” hat — attire that some people see as a symbol of racism — during a video class session, Saige simply changed her settings to view only the teacher.

“Although the violence is still there, she has the ability to maneuver in a way that she didn’t have when she was in school,” Ms. Aryee-Price explained.

As school districts across the country have grappled with whether to reopen school buildings or continue to hold classes remotely, national pollingshows Black parents are the most wary of the risks to their health and the well-being of their children that come with in-person learning. Eighty-nine percent saw returning to school as a large or moderate risk, compared with 64 percent of white parents — at a time when Black and Hispanic children and teenagers account for 74 percent of Covid-19 deaths in people under the age of 21.

But one recent analysis indicates that some Black families value keeping their children at home for an entirely different reason: to protect them from racial hostility and bias. Granted, not all Black children are thriving at home. They’re overrepresented among the kids who don’t have reliable Wi-Fi or adequate equipment at home. And supervising online learning is not an option for parents who are essential workers — a group that disproportionately includes Black people. Yet for some of those for whom virtual school is viable, the current disruption has opened up a new world: education without daily anxiety about racism.

Theresa Chapple-McGruder, a Black maternal and child health epidemiologist, immediately saw positive changes in her second grader when her Washington, D.C.-area school district went all virtual. Inundated with news stories focusing on the challenges of virtual schooling, the seasoned researcher set out to determine if she was an outlier. On Sept. 2, she posed a simple question — “What do you like about virtual schools?” — in an online survey of members of the national Facebook group Conscious Parenting for the Culture. The group, which she joined as a founding member in 2017, is made up of more than 10,000 Black parents of children from prekindergarten through 12th grade.

A theme quickly emerged. The 373 parents who responded overwhelmingly said they appreciated the way virtual learning allowed them to shield their children from anti-Black bias and protect them from the school-to-prison pipeline — the well-documented link between the police in schools and the criminalization of Black youth and other students of color. As one respondent wrote, referring to school resource officers, the law enforcement officers who work in schools, “There are no S.R.O.s at home.”

More than 40 parents said they appreciated virtual schooling because it allows them to, as one put it, “hear how the teacher speaks to children.”

To be sure, the informal survey’s sample size was small and the respondents aren’t necessarily representative of Black parents across the country. (The private Facebook group describes itself as “a safe, supportive space for BLACK parents of Black children to openly discuss how racism, white supremacy, and systemic oppression impact our parenting choices, how to work to overcome generational traumas, and how to be a more conscious parent in order to raise culturally, socially, and intellectually liberated children.”) Still, the sentiments expressed track with anecdotal evidence and other research that links Black parents’ motivations for home-schooling to perceptions of racial bias in schools.

Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate education professor at the University of Georgia, studies why Black families choose to home-school. “I’ve never had a parent tell me it was one particular factor,” she said. “It’s a multitude of factors, and a lot of them revolve around what I would just plainly say is racism.” Dr. Fields-Smith said this pattern can be seen in curriculum that fails to teach about Black Americans beyond slavery and the civil rights era, and in many teachers’ negative preconceptions about Black youngsters.

She said she had also seen it firsthand observing elementary school classrooms. “If Black children so much as wiggle, it’s ‘Keep still!’ White kids are wiggling, and they don’t say a word. It’s nothing but misgivings, misinterpretations, mis-whatever about Black people moving,” she said. “They feel like they’re being picked on.”

A 2016 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and American University found thatwhen anticipating a Black student’s academic future, white teachers were less likely than Black teachers to predict the student would graduate high school and less likely to think the student would earn a four-year college degree. It’s no surprise that Black children are underrepresented in gifted classes and under-enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement courses — or that a Black student at a school with few other Black children is more likely to have a diagnosis of learning disabled than a similarly performing child at a predominantly Black school.

Virtual learning “is an empowering feeling for parents,” Dr. Chapple-McGruder said. “We realize that these negative things that our children experience aren’t just going to disappear. But if something is going wrong,” she said, “we can advocate immediately.”

One mother who responded to the survey reported that she’d intervened in real time when her son’s teacher threatened to withhold participation credit because his noisy siblings made it difficult to hear his answers to her questions. The teacher told the child — who lived in a one-bedroom apartment — to find a quieter space. The mother explained in her survey response that she spoke directly to the teacher, suggesting that her son be allowed to mute his mic and type his answers in the chat box. Problem solved. “The fact that the teacher was willing to dock the child’s grade, instead of coming up with a creative way that the child could answer and still participate, these are the things that I feel happen often to Black children,” Dr. Chapple-McGruder said. “If they can’t conform to the exact way that the teacher wants, they get graded harder.”

It is little wonder that about 20 percent of the Black parents who responded to her survey said that if virtual learning was an option after the pandemic is over, they would choose it over a return to brick-and-mortar schools.

Dr. Aryee-Price, a former public-school teacher, is conflicted about what happens next. She said while she truly believes in education, she sees schools as “sites for anti-Blackness.”

“I’m able to witness what school has done to my children,” she said, “and it’s clear that it’s been a detriment.”

Melinda D. Anderson (@mdawriter) is an education journalist and the author of “Becoming a Teacher.

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