Darya Davis: Stark divide exacerbated by the pandemic, leave parents weary of opening schools

February 10, 2021

The stark racial divide among parents on who is comfortable sending their children to school for in-person or hybrid learning is just another, entirely predictable result of the prominent divide between white and Black America. And here in DC is no different.

As DC Public Schools opened this month for about 8,500 students — and many DC charter schools are likely to follow DCPS’ lead — the city hasn’t done enough to be transparent with parents about what they are doing to make in-person learning safe for students and their families.

Schools uptown, in Ward 3 which overwhelmingly serve white families, have long waiting lists of families who want to send their children back to in-person learning. This isn’t the case east of the river. Not only are schools not filled in Wards 7 and 8, but just one student showed up on the first day of learning at Johnson Middle School.

This isn’t just an educational problem. If when looking at COVID-19 vaccination rates in DC, you see a vast difference between the numbers of people getting vaccinated in wealthier wards with white residents compared to wards that are majority Black.

These are discrepancies that are not created by the pandemic, but are exacerbated by it. 

As the parent of a 3rd grader in a public charter school in Ward 8, here’s what I believe schools and the city need to do to win the trust of parents and begin to close the growing, but long standing equity gaps in our schools and in our city:

  1. Have understanding and compassion for families. Too often, I hear that teachers are tired. And I know they are — but we all are. I need teachers to be patient with students as we navigate virtual learning. We also must acknowledge that virtual learning means that schools and teachers are in our homes. And that means sometimes — or always — students may not be comfortable turning on their cameras. Educators and schools must respect the small bits of privacy we have left.
  2. Start school when the pandemic is significantly under control. But don’t scrap the entire school year. With longstanding misuse of Black bodies by the medical field and record-development of multiple vaccines, of course the Black community is skeptical of the vaccine. Pair that with growing cases in DC and more deaths among Black DC residents than white DC residents, the reality is Black families won’t be going to in-person learning in large numbers. Better to make virtual learning — focused on the basics of math and reading — work, while also supporting students’ mental health needs.
  3. Be transparent and acknowledge the inequity. As schools talk about the “deep cleaning” protocols, ensuring hot water, and soap in bathrooms, I have to ask: why wasn’t that the standard before the pandemic? When the city talks about a nurse in every school, again, why wasn’t that the standard before COVID-19? Small class sizes to ensure social distancing? Parents have requested smaller classes for a very long time. For too long, schools — especially schools east of the river — haven’t had the basics. Now we are being asked to trust that the same school system will make sure our children are safe. The path forward is that parents need to be able to see for ourselves. Parents can and will be more comfortable with schools opening when they feel and clearly see the steps schools have taken. But that starts with some truth-telling on what families east of the river have had to deal with — largely on our own.

By Darya Davis, Citywide Board member and Ward 8 PLE Board member