Last fall, reports from New York City and other large public school districts highlighted a worrisome pattern—parents of white children were tending to send their kids back to school in person, while parents of children of color were disproportionately opting to keep them learning at home.
At the time, many commentators and experts speculated as to the reasons for the disparity. Maybe it was racial differences in families’ trust in the public school system—differences rooted in decades of underinvestment in and mistreatment of Black students and other students of color in school. Or maybe it was white parents’ lack of concern about the risks of the pandemic, a reflection of politicized misinformation about the coronavirus and the privilege of living in communities less affected by COVID-19. But back then, with limited data, pinning this down with any certainty was impossible.
Now, with the benefit of more data, the story of race and school reopenings is becoming clear. My colleagues and I conducted an online survey of 1,668 U.S. parents with school-age children, which we fielded through the polling firm Ipsos in December 2020. Looking at parents whose children had the option of attending school in person (i.e., at a physical school building for at least part of the week), we examined what predicted whether those families chose in-person or remote schooling (i.e., online instruction or homeschooling) and their accounts of the choices they made. We found, as we describe in a new working paper, that the biggest factor for many families was rather concrete: whether a parent or other adult was available during the school day to supervise kids. And because of racial inequality in America—and, specifically, because of racial inequalities in the layoffs that came early in the pandemic—whether such an adult was home varied greatly by race.
Among families in which no parent lost a job and all parents remained employed full-time, 64 percent chose the in-person instruction option when it was available to them. By contrast, among families in which either parent lost a job and did not return to full-time paid work, only 35 percent opted for in-person instruction when they had that choice.
Pandemic job losses disproportionately impacted workers of color, workers without university degrees, and especially women workers in both these groups. Black and Latina women faced particularly high rates of job loss, in part because they were more likely to have jobs that could not be done from home. Those job losses built on top of pre-pandemic inequalities in parents’ employment (even in normal times, Black and Hispanic parents were more likely to be unemployed than white parents, and Hispanic and Asian American mothers were more likely than white mothers to be home with their children full-time), and they left wide variations in families’ availability to support their children’s learning at home.
These inequalities in parents’ pandemic employment explained a significant portion of the racial and socioeconomic variations in families’ decisions about whether to return to in-person school. After accounting for inequalities in families’ access to in-person instruction, inequalities in local COVID-19 rates, and inequalities in parents’ employment, my co-authors and I found no statistically significant differences between white families and families of color in their likelihood of choosing in-person school. This is not to say race didn’t matter, but that we can now, with these data, better understand why it did matter.
Parents’ responses to open-ended survey questions—for example, we asked them to describe how they chose what type of schooling their children would receive—further highlighted the importance of employment in parents’ decisions about pandemic-era schooling.
We found that although most parents were concerned about the safety of in-person schooling, parents who lost their job during the pandemic (and those who were previously stay-at-home parents or working only part-time) were able to center safety in their decision-making, as it was more practical for them to keep their children home full-time. That included a GED-educated white mother in West Virginia who lost her job in retail sales during the pandemic and who decided to enroll her 16-year-old daughter in remote instruction, despite having the option of in-person instruction five days a week in school. Explaining that decision, she wrote: “Brookelyn and I discussed it and we both felt it would be best all around for her health, safety, and everything that she does remote learning.” A Latina mother in California, who started college but never finished her degree, lost her job during the pandemic and offered a similar explanation for why she kept her fourth grader and seventh grader home, despite having access to in-person instruction. She wrote: “We agreed to keep the family safe first! It was a hard decision because the kids want to go back to school to see friends!”
Meanwhile, parents who did not lose their job and remained employed full-time had to balance their concerns about their children’s safety with the challenges of combining intensive work and parenting demands. Consider, for example, a college-educated Filipino father in New York City who maintained full-time employment as a social worker during the pandemic. When asked whether he was concerned about his children getting COVID-19, he noted that he “strongly agreed.” Despite those concerns, he still chose in-person instruction for his first grader. He explained: “We decided to continue with the status quo of in person learning because we couldn’t take time off to care for her during the day.” Consider also a high-school-educated Black father in Virginia who continued working full-time as a caterer. He reported that he knew more than 10 people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19. He also reported that he “strongly disagreed” that in-person schooling was a safe option for children in his community. However, he opted to send his sixth grader to school in-person. Explaining that decision, he noted: “We [were] going to do virtual at first but didn’t have anyone to help with it. So we decided to just send him to school.”
Even so, for parents who chose in-person instruction for work-related reasons, the decision was rarely easy. Instead, those decisions created guilt for parents—and especially for mothers. In another paper, recently published in the journal Socius, my colleagues and I describe what we found in interviews with 69 Indiana parents about the decisions they made during the pandemic.
One high-school-educated Black mother described guilt around her decision to send her two elementary-age children back to in-person school. She explained that she opted for in-person instruction because of the stress of trying to do her customer-service job with her children at home, noting: “There’s all this ruckus going on in the background and I’m trying to keep my quality good on my calls. It’s a challenge when they have to be home, because you don’t know when a child is going to be like: ‘Mommy! I’m having trouble with this.’” Sending her children back to in-person school alleviated some of that stress, but it also led to guilt, particularly after her first grader began having “meltdowns” at school. “The teacher’s not helping him the way she should,” she told us, “and that led to him being frustrated. Then she gets frustrated. So, of course, he can see that she’s frustrated so he had a meltdown, and then she threatens to call his parents, which made his meltdown even worse.”
Despite her son’s meltdown, this mom kept her kids in in-person school. Her family depended on her income, and she couldn’t risk losing her job. In the end, she cut back her work hours so that she could have more time and energy for her children, but she did keep them in school.
This is not to say that availability was the only factor families considered when making decisions about in-person learning. In fact, some parents chose remote instruction even when they remained employed full-time. In our national survey data, my co-authors and I found that when full-time employed parents decided to keep kids home, in many cases it was because children or other family members were at high risk of complications or death from COVID-19—risks that, because of health inequalities derived from centuries of systemic racism and economic marginalization, are higher among families of color and low-income families.
One college-educated Black/Latina mother in Illinois, for example, formed a pandemic pod and hired a private tutor to help her third grader with remote learning, so that she could continue working full-time as a store manager during the pandemic. Explaining that decision, she wrote: “We decided, because we have older relatives who EJ is around a lot and we know if he gets [sick] at school he passes it on, so it’s better for him to stay home and not give that risk.” In some cases, parents (especially mothers) even left their jobs to keep their high-risk children at home. That included a high-school-educated Latina mother in Texas who left her job as a special-education aide to support her first grader with remote learning. Explaining this choice, she wrote: “We decided remote learning would be best due to the fact that we are in a high risk group for covid and due to my son’s disability and my former line of work giving me a lot of experience working with children with autism. It is very easy for me to assist him with learning at home. He is thriving.”
Unfortunately, for both employed and unemployed parents, the current pandemic situation is doing little to make schooling decisions easier for the 2021–22 academic year. Children under 12 remain ineligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, the Delta variant is ravaging unvaccinated groups and infecting (albeit with a lower risk of severe symptoms) many fully vaccinated people too. A recent report out of Louisiana found that 3,000 children in the state tested positive for COVID-19 over the span of just four days. Some of those children are experiencing only mild symptoms, but others are ending up in crowded ICUs.
Whatever families choose to do in these circumstances will be for reasons they know best—their kids, their jobs, their health, their finances, and any other needs. And regardless of what they choose, one thing will be true for pretty much everyone: These will be hard decisions, and this will be a tough year ahead. Parents, like everyone, are going to need a lot of support and flexibility to get through it, whether they send their children back to school in person or find a way to keep their children learning at home.