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To support Black children, school systems must engage their parents | COMMENTARY

COVID-19 has revealed the significant divide in educational opportunity in America. For decades, these disparities were widely known to researchers and educators, yet remained hidden from public view. They have now been brought out in the open.

This pandemic set off a cacophony of angry cries from mostly middle-class, white parents outraged over school closures and the implementation of virtual instruction. As the pandemic persisted for months, scenes of these parents protesting at schools, venting at school board meetings and even filing litigation against school districts became common. Frustrated over having to shuffle job responsibilities and manage children at home, there was a demand by white parents for a swift return to “normalcy.”

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The challenge for Black parents is that “normal” wasn’t working for their children before the pandemic. Black children had been left behind under the old “normal” order, and they now face even greater abandonment as a result of COVID-19. This is why school districts must be intentional in acknowledging the impact of race during this pandemic and have a strategy to level the playing field for Black children. Past practices were insufficient, and the future is looking murky if we return to public schools with blinders on.

What has been evident for some time is that Black parents are seldom incorporated in formal efforts to improve the academic performance of Black children. Schools and school districts treat Black parents as an afterthought, showing little interest in understanding individual family dynamics or the specific challenges that inhibit a child’s learning. Most often, the input of Black parents is solicited when a perceived “behavioral” issue surfaces concerning a child. This disconnect puts Black parents at a disadvantage with little guidance from schools when trying to supplement a child’s in-school instruction at home.

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There is no doubt that concerns over “learning loss” among Black children is real and valid. Given a widely acknowledged achievement gap, the loss of classroom instruction time weighs heavily upon Black children. Unfortunately, equity gaps were revealed in the transition to remote instruction, as many Black households lacked internet access and children did not have appropriate devices. To make matters worse, many Black families lack appropriate study space for children in the home and parents, many of them essential workers, did not have the luxury of providing hands-on support to children who were forced to stay home. These conditions left Black children further behind.

Coming out of this pandemic, school districts need to be intentional in their efforts to engage Black parents and support Black students. With the Biden administration focusing squarely on family supports and the generational opportunity presented by the recently adopted Blueprint for Maryland’s Future, this is the perfect opportunity to create structured programs aimed at ending educational disparities by enlisting Black parents as partners in public education. Starting with preschool children, Black families need to be immersed in effective strategies to support a child’s intellectual growth and overall wellness. School districts have to stop talking at Black families and instead make them an integral part of the planning process. We cannot expect better educational outcomes for Black children if we keep their parents and guardians at a distance. For too long Black families have been treated as a nuisance by public school districts, preferred to remain in the background and simply police the behavior of their children. It is only when Black families are viewed as essential for Black student success will we see a change in the academic performance and outcomes for Black children. We cannot expect to close the racial achievement gap if Black families are not part of the solution. COVID-19 provides us the opportunity to embark upon a much different path.

Walter Fields (www.walterlfields.com) is the co-chairperson of the Advisory Council for Strong Schools Maryland and the founder of the Black Parents Workshop Inc., based in New Jersey.

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