Schools Are Open, but Many Families Remain Hesitant to Return

(NYT) - Even as fears of the coronavirus abate, many students are continuing to opt out of in-person learning. Some school leaders are trying to woo — or push — them back.

Schools Are Open, but Many Families Remain Hesitant to Return

Pauline Rojas’s high school in San Antonio is open. But like many of her classmates, she has not returned, and has little interest in doing so.

During the coronavirus pandemic, she started working 20 to 40 hours per week at Raising Cane’s, a fast-food restaurant, and has used the money to help pay her family’s internet bill, buy clothes and save for a car.

Ms. Rojas, 18, has no doubt that a year of online school, squeezed between work shifts that end at midnight, has affected her learning. Still, she has embraced her new role as a breadwinner, sharing responsibilities with her mother who works at a hardware store.

“I wanted to take the stress off my mom,” she said. “I’m no longer a kid. I’m capable of having a job, holding a job and making my own money.”

Only a small slice of American schools remain fully closed: 12 percent of elementary and middle schools, according to a federal survey, as well as a minority of high schools. But the percentage of students learning fully remotely is much greater: more than a third of fourth and eighth graders, and an even larger group of high school students. A majority of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American students remain out of school.

These disparities have put district leaders and policymakers in a tough position as they end this school year and plan for the next one. Even though the pandemic appears to be coming under control in the United States as vaccinations continue, many superintendents say fear of the coronavirus itself is no longer the primary reason their students are opting out. Nor are many families expressing a strong preference for remote learning.

Rather, for every child and parent who has leaped at the opportunity to return to the classroom, others changed their lives over the past year in ways that make going back to school difficult. The consequences are likely to reverberate through the education system for years, especially if states and districts continue to give students the choice to attend school remotely.

Teenagers from low-income families have taken on heavy loads of paid work, especially because so many parents lost jobs. Parents made new child care arrangements to get through the long months of school closures and part-time hours, and are now loath to disrupt established routines. Some families do not know that local public schools have reopened, because of language barriers or lack of effective communication from districts.

Experts have coined the term “school hesitancy” to describe the remarkably durable resistance to a return to traditional learning. Some wonder whether the pandemic has simply upended people’s choices about how to live, with the location of schooling — like the location of office work — now up for grabs. But others see the phenomenon as a social and educational crisis for children that must be combated — a challenge akin to vaccine hesitancy.

“There are so many stories, and they are all stories that break your heart,” said Pedro Martinez, the San Antonio schools superintendent, who said it was most challenging to draw teenagers back to classrooms in his overwhelmingly Hispanic, low-income district. Half of high school students are eligible to return to school five days a week, but only 30 percent have opted in. Concerned about flagging grades and the risk of students dropping out, he plans to greatly restrict access to remote learning next school year.

“I don’t want to keep opening up this Pandora’s box,” he said.

In March, half of Black and Hispanic children, and two-thirds of Asian-American children, were enrolled in remote school, compared with 20 percent of white students, according to the latest federal data. While most district leaders and policymakers believe that the classroom is the best place for children and teenagers to learn, many are hesitant to apply pressure to families who have lived through a traumatic year.

An added complication is continued opposition to full-time, in-person learning from some teachers and district officials, with unions arguing that widespread vaccination of educators, and soon teenagers as well, does not eliminate the need for physical distancing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to advise three to six feet of distancing in schools. In that context, students who opt out create the space necessary to serve students who prefer to be in person.