Each morning just before school, Dawn Hawkins and her 13-year-old son Khyrie hold hands, close their eyes and bow their heads. “Be a shield of protection for my baby,” Hawkins prays over the lanky 8th grader. Then it’s off to his new school: a 15 minute walk through Strawberry Mansion, one of the most violent neighborhoods in Philadelphia, in the most murderous section of the city. The school is a little less than a mile from home. But it could well be foreign territory.

Until September, Khyrie’s daily journey didn’t require a call for divine intervention. But he is one of 9,000 Philadelphia public school students taking new and often more dangerous routes to school this year. The district shuttered 23 schools over the summer, plunging an already beleaguered system into further disorder. These students, many of them elementary-school age and almost all of them Black, have been scattered across 50 schools, often in unfamiliar or unwelcoming neighborhoods. Some must take longer walks to school, crossing dangerous intersections and neighborhoods. Deep budget cuts has meant fewer crossing guards.

What’s happening in Philadelphia is happening across the country. In major cities including Chicago, Detroit, New York and Oakland, mass school closings have affected thousands of Black and Latino students. Opponents describe the closures as a steep blow to a generation of minority students already struggling with social and economic instability. The school closures and their unintended consequences have sparked protests among parents, students, and advocates who say the school board targeted minority students and low income communities.

“You have poor kids all over the country but the mass closures are disproportionately affecting children of color,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Instead of fixing a school and making public schools the center of a community where parents want to send their kids, you’re hurting communities, you’re hurting schools and you are sending kids outside of their neighborhood to places that in the long run, frankly, are no better than the places they left.”