With more and more school districts shifting to online learning, the needs of the most vulnerable members of society are being excluded from consideration. As director of activism for brightbeam, a network of activists fighting for education justice, I work with parents across the country. Many of the people I work and speak with are single parents or parents with limited means. To put a face on these families, many are working-class, African American, single-income households, and often headed by Black women. As they cope with the pandemic, they have a new challenge: navigating how to both work and educate their children.
From the data, we know that Black women make up 70 percent of households. According to the National Partnership for Women and Family, “Black women in the United States who work full time, year-round are typically paid just 62 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. The wages of Black women are driven down by a number of current factors including gender and racial discrimination, workplace harassment, job segregation and a lack of workplace policies that support family caregiving, which is still most often performed by women.”
While this is problematic on its face, it’s disastrous during an international pandemic. Black women are not making the kind of money they need to meet their family’s basic needs. This was true before the pandemic, and it is amplified now. What’s more, many of these women are essential workers, making their exposure to COVID-19 much higher than that of their counterparts. As essential workers, they are required to go to work, even while others have the luxury of working from home. As essential workers, their ability to assist their children with online learning is limited. There is real potential of children from these households falling behind. And if any have intellectual, emotional or physical disabilities, they and their families face an even steeper road when it comes to adjusting to online instruction.
Further, Black women face a dilemma of being criminalized for being working class or living in poverty. If they go to work, they must leave their children home alone. If they prioritize work so they can feed their families, their children risk being labeled truant if they do not log on or do not log on at the correct time. If they stay home and prioritize educating their children, they risk cuts in their already stretched paychecks. If they do not log a certain number of hours at work, they may experience a pay cut or even job loss.
If there is one thing I want readers to take away, it is this: When middle-class people make decisions about school closures, they speak from their social location, which is drastically different from that of working-class and single-parent households. While a two-parent household of means may be able to adapt to online-only instruction, doing so may be harder, or even impossible, for working-class parents or single mothers. For this reason alone, school districts should not create reopening plans without including these families’ perspective.
In these trying times, parents need direct cash assistance. We should be advocating for an education stipend for parents to hire a tutor or another responsible adult to help educate and care for their children. One way to do this is to divert a portion of the per pupil expenditure to families should districts impose virtual-only learning. Finally, we should be ensuring universal free broadband services for all families who need it, designating it as a public utility.
Instead of pursuing such paths, some Florida teachers and the Florida Education Association are suing to stop the planned reopening of schools in the area. And school officials in places such as Fairfax County, Virginia, Arlington County, Virginia, and Wake County, North Carolina, all announced plans to move classes online for the start of the upcoming school year. In North Carolina alone, at least 13 school districts have announced plans to move classes online.
As a nation, we have a responsibility to ensure all children are educated safely and in a way that does not criminalize them or their parents. We know the school-to-prison pipeline is a real phenomenon, wreaking havoc on the lives of far too many Black and Brown children, children with disabilities and children identifying as LGBTQ. We do not need to make it worse by creating policies that are silent on diverse families’ needs.
To pretend that children from single-parent and working-class households will not be adversely impacted by one-size-fits-all policies is to willfully close one’s eyes and ears to these families’ struggles. To pretend that these families will be able to hold it all together, without more flexible arrangements to support those who work and parent alone, is the height of fantastical thinking.
Unfortunately, the narrative around school reopening is limited. It is a binary discussion of whether schools reopen or remain closed. When school officials and city leaders mandate online instruction only, they are telling children from single-parent and working-class homes that they are not worth educating. When teachers and teachers unions, such as the Florida Education Association, threaten to sue over schools reopening in the fall, they are placing children from single-parent households in jeopardy. I see this. My hope is that others will too.
Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is the national director of activism at brightbeam and the co-founder of Racial Justice NOW!, and she has served as the national field organizer at Dignity in Schools Campaign. She is a preeminent thought leader in racial and education justice and has received numerous awards.