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Science & Medicine

COVID Isn't The Only Reason Parents Are Hesitant To Send Their Kids Back To School

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the new school year gets underway, you've probably heard a lot of discussion, maybe some of it quite heated, about how to return to in-person school while the COVID pandemic continues. But studies taken over the summer show that some parents are questioning whether to return at all. A July survey taken by the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, for example, showed that Black and Hispanic parents - those were the terms the researchers used - were more hesitant about sending their kids to in-person schooling than white and Asian parents. But our next guest says that is not just because of COVID and that educators should consider the reasons why some parents want some alternative learning options apart from the health concerns.

Our guest is Ivory Toldson. He is a professor at Howard University, a former White House adviser on HBCUs. He has now undertaken a new role with the NAACP as director of education, innovation and research. Professor Toldson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

IVORY TOLDSON: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First, let me just get your reaction to the Rand study. The study was taken in July of 2021. It said that 82% of Black and 83% of Hispanic parents plan to send their children to school in person in fall 2021. That's compared to 94% of white and 88% of Asian parents. And that showed a narrowing of a gap since an earlier survey in May but still a substantial one, so I'm wondering what your reaction to that is.

TOLDSON: Yeah. It's not surprising. And it's mostly not surprising to me because of some of the people who I've talked to, including school leaders, who have made that observation. And it's not just about the Black versus the white students or Black and Hispanic versus white students, but it's students with disabilities, students who need special support at school, students who were most often being suspended. And there is a relationship between a lot of those characteristics and race, but if we really drill down into the race, there are specific populations who seem to be most hesitant.

MARTIN: And you think that it's not just the COVID pandemic protocols that is the driver here of that - the reluctance to go back to school. Could you talk a little bit more about that? I mean, do you think that there is something in the school environment itself, apart from the health protocols...

TOLDSON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...That is driving this that perhaps is not showing up in these surveys?

TOLDSON: Yes. I think we need to look a lot deeper at the issue and at those numbers because when we think about the students who weren't being served as well in school to begin with, they were largely Black and brown students. When we look at things like suspensions, when we look at the distance from the neighborhoods to the school that you're going to, when you're looking at the jobs, the typical jobs that parents had that made it more difficult for them to participate in different things, these students were disproportionately Black.

And so when we think about the difference in the experience they had during virtual learning, there are some ways in which their learning was accommodated better. There are some lessons that we could learn from this experience. I don't think we are. I think we look at the surface too much. We're looking at strictly the COVID protocols, but we need to really understand what was the experience of these students before they went into virtual learning and the experiences that they had during virtual learning.

MARTIN: So I want to hear more about your new role at the NAACP. And the NAACP, as I think many people know, is one of the premier civil rights organizations in the country, more than a century old. It is a grassroots organization. What's the goal of this group that you're standing up? I mean, what's the plan for it?

TOLDSON: Yeah. So I'll be the director of education, innovation and research, and our goal is to make sure that every student has accessible, quality education, regardless of their background. We know that Black students are more likely to be in schools that have fewer resources. High school students are more likely to be in schools that don't have a full slate of math and science classes that they need for college. They are subject to more punitive discipline. And so the division that I'm going to be over will work to fix these issues by creating the types of platforms and, working with our local chapters, creating the kind of information systems that they need in order to advance equitable education for all.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, is there a particular issue that you think that parents should be attentive to as their children return to school this fall if they are concerned about the school environment in - perhaps in a manner that they are not able to fully articulate? You know, what do you recommend that parents focus on?

TOLDSON: Pay attention to how the students are disciplined at the school. Pay attention to the experiences that your child has when they walk through the building. There are some schools that get it right. They have music playing. They have posters up. They have somebody at the door smiling at them. But there's other schools - as soon as this child walks through the door, they're passing by mean security officers, metal detectors, being shook down. Also, ask a lot of questions of your school administrators and pointed questions about how Black students are being treated at the school. And if there are any disparities or if there are higher-level classes that don't have enough Black students in it, challenge schools to explain that and to present the plan that they have to make that right.

MARTIN: That was Ivory Toldson. He's a professor at Howard University. He's the former executive director of the White House Initiative on HBCUs News in the Obama administration. He's now the new director of education, innovation and research at the NAACP. Professor Toldson, thank you so much for joining us. I do hope you'll keep in touch and keep us abreast of your work.

TOLDSON: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.