Recruit and Retain: The Future of Education

Choosing In-Person or Online School: Racial Divides

As the 2020 – 2021 school year loomed, some families in Oxford, Mississippi spoke of wanting their children to be back in school socializing with friends and participating in extracurricular activities. Others were adamant: They weren’t ready to have their children back. Demographics had a predictive effect, according to the Hechinger Report. Those anxious for the extra-curriculars and the in-person time tended to be white.

Similar dichotomies were reported around the country at different point in the school year. They showed up in hard data as well as anecdote. One February 2021 survey found that approximately two times as many Black and Hispanic families preferred continued online learning as white families did. Many individual districts have released data that show a racial divide in schooling preferences.

Possible Causes for Differential Decision Making

Multiple reasons have been posited. There are several black communities have been more ravaged by Covid-19. They experience, as a group, poorer living conditions, lower healthcare access, and more chronic health conditions. Trust in the school system is frequently lower. And many families were feeling less supported in their schools and communities before the pandemic.

Conditions aren’t equal from school to school, with some families reporting a less positive school climate. More white families, notably, have reported confidence in the school’s ability to get students to comply with health protocols.

Some families expressed a lack of trust in the school system from past failures. A Pew survey found a lack of trust that extended beyond the school system to the level of care members of the extended family would receive if they actually became sick (

Some families considered fear of following behind a kind of luxury. They were worried about survival.

Chalkbeat profiled a black mother who felt safer with her children at home in the 2021 – 2022 school year ( Working for a leasing company and simultaneously overseeing the education of a seven-year-old child and a teenager made for considerable challenges, but she was more concerned about her health. She was able to work from home – something black workers as a whole were less likely to be able to do. Many felt going virtual for the time being was a necessary, whatever their work or living circumstances.

Fear for physical safety extended to teachers, in some communities more than others. A February 2020 survey found 80% of black keeping schools closed until teachers were vaccinated, but just 51% of white favoring it (

Differential Effects

There is some evidence behind the assertion that students of color are disproportionately affected by virtual education. They are, for example, more likely to live in poverty and more likely to live in crowded conditions.

Students have stressors in physical buildings, too, though. They were responding in differential ways before schools went online. The Urban Institute reported in 2020 that back families were more likely to report a less positive school environment with less connection, more discipline, and lower perceived support.

While virtual education has been projected to widen gaps, this has not been the case for all. A small percentage of families across groups have seen their children blossom under a very different form of education. Black families are no exception. Some parents feel empowered and better able to protect their children. One mother reported that she lived in a part of Georgia where Ku Klux Klan flyers showed up in mailboxes, and this was a part of her decision to keep her daughters in virtual school ( She felt stressed before the pandemic – stressed when she dropped her girls off at school.

The mother of an eighth grader profiled by NPR, in the opinion of his mother, developing relationships with teachers online – relationships being one of the reasons many have said virtual education was inadequate (

While there is research to support the claim that minority students will be disproportionately affected by virtual education, there is still danger in how it’s interpreted. During the 2020 – 2021 school year, equity was often voiced as a reason for opening doors to physical classrooms. It was sometimes placed in a political context as a criticism of teachers’ unions. Whatever the motivation behind people’s different stances, the reality was that those that came back early would be disproportionately white while those who stayed virtual through the school year would be disproportionately black.

Improving Educational Opportunity

One way districts have tried to promote equity is by improving the quality of their online instruction. Virtual instruction began, by necessity, very quickly. It was implemented largely by people who knew very little about either the tools that were available or the engagement/ management strategies that would work. Data from spring 2020 reflects the quality of virtual education and the lack of participation.

Districts worked on improving their delivery for the 2020 – 2021 school year ( Several major school districts have decided to continue with virtual schooling options. The Oxford, Mississippi equity director responded to the potential inequity by working to ensure that very capable teachers were assigned to online classes and implementing software that would track student time “to the minute” (

Another thing that districts are working on: making their physical buildings more welcoming. The interim superintendent of Seattle Public Schools has stated that there will be a virtual option for families in the 2021-2022 school year, noting that virtual education works very well for some students. He has also noted that some families have opted for virtual learning because of racism or bulling, and these issues will be addressed system-wide.

The senior policy analyst of the Education Trust noted that black students couldn’t be treated as a single group. While some might need support in-person, others were, for the moment doing well where they were.

The pandemic upended education and also exposed some of what was there before. One thing people can count on: that there will be more dialogues moving forward.

One poll showed disparities are evident in other school districts, too. In the suburban Cherry Creek School District, 12% of white students opted for online learning, as did 23% of Hispanic students and 31% of Black students. Students of color are also overrepresented among those who chose to remain in remote learning in suburban Jeffco Public Schools.