Mariah Scott walks into J.A. Chalkley Elementary each day wearing a mask tied to a lanyard so it won’t touch any surfaces, including her desk. She has a spare in her book bag, just to be safe. Her mother drives her to and from school each day so she doesn’t risk breathing in what other children might breathe out on the bus.
Mariah, 7, enjoys packing her lunch nightly, especially her snack. When her mother, Chavonn Reed, picks her up, all the teachers know the first-grader because of her book bag — the one with names of Black leaders and the phrase “Because Of Them We Can.”
Mariah rotates her masks daily and carries hand sanitizer. Her mom has a separate laundry bag for all of the family’s masks and washes them separately from their clothes. On Feb. 2, her first day back, Mariah was nervous about wearing a mask all day and forgetting her teacher’s name. Eleven months ago, the last time Mariah was there, she was still in kindergarten.
Mariah was among the 14,000 elementary students who returned to Chesterfield schools in February, just as the state and county had experienced its worst month with COVID-19.
Reed worries every time she or a loved one steps outside of their home, into the raging pandemic. Even a quick grocery trip is taxing. The worry never goes away.
So her anxiety soared as Mariah walked into Chalkley Elementary to a classroom she had never been to before with a new teacher.
But Mariah needed to be back in school. Reed had hired a tutor to assist with classwork and signed Mariah up for virtual speech therapy, but she could see her daughter falling behind with virtual learning. Reed noticed a regression in Mariah’s speech, as she tripped over words with combination sounds, like “th” and “sh.”
Reed lives with the constant worry of her youngest bringing home a sickness that has killed over 7,000 Virginians, with Black and Latino residents accounting for a third of those deaths. But keeping Mariah at home runs the risk of her falling further behind with her reading and speech.
Parents of color overall say they are less willing to send their kids back into school buildings than white parents, according to a July study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People of color are suffering from COVID-19 in every regard: deaths, job losses and food insecurity.
Chesterfield allowed parents to choose whether to send their kids back to school. Across the county, roughly half of the elementary school population returned. At Chalkley, where 45% of students returned, only 1 in 3 Black students showed up on the first day back, while nearly half of Hispanic students and about 6 in 10 white students did, according to state and county data. The district’s whitest school zone, Bettie Weaver, had the highest percentage of students who signed up to return.
“[F]or families of color, at this point, the pandemic is the confluence of a number of different factors all coming together to make them have massive distrust,” said Annette Anderson, the deputy director for the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University.
Faced not only with a global health pandemic but also a racism pandemic and an economic pandemic, it’s no wonder parents want to keep their children at home, Anderson said.
Affluent and white families are having an easier time deciding to send their kids back because they don’t face the same level of risks, she said.
This is playing out across the region, with decisions made in Hanover County, a majority-white school district where 60% of students returned in September, and in Richmond, a predominantly Black school district whose buildings remain shuttered since last March.
In Henrico and Chesterfield counties, the school boards recently voted to have students return to in-person learning. Chesterfield sent students back in cohorts in the fall, while Henrico remained closed.
State officials have inserted themselves into the reopening conversation, wanting students back in classrooms within the month. The CDC released new guidance Friday showing a clear preference toward sending students back, especially younger learners, if schools follow guidelines, including wearing masks, physical distancing and proper ventilation.
Reed didn’t enroll Mariah in hybrid learning in the fall. Her daughter became used to seeing her teacher through a computer screen. Reed did send back her older daughter, Amaya Scott, a sophomore at Lloyd C. Bird High School who is enrolled in the Virginia Governor’s Academy for Engineering Studies.
When the first wave of Chesterfield students returned in the fall, the county’s seven-day average per 100,000 COVID-19 cases sat at 36. On Feb. 2, when Mariah returned to school, it had risen to almost 50. The school system originally said students wouldn’t return to school if that number rose above 25.
Reed struggled with deciding on whether to send Mariah back to school after the Chesterfield School Board voted in January to send the youngest learners back five days a week. She and her husband talked it over.
Not favoring a full week, nevertheless Reed found solace in having her youngest return because of Chalkley’s administration and teachers. During hybrid learning, even though Mariah stayed home, Chalkley’s principal stayed connected with virtual students and kept parents informed. When the time came to decide, trust was a major factor.
“I had nothing but faith they would keep them [the students] safe,” Reed said.
Mariah understands the virus has kept her from her friends and being able to leave the house freely. She knows not to touch anyone at school or share supplies, like her scissors.
If schools want to reopen to a large degree, trust with families needs to be rebuilt, Anderson said. With more consistent guidance, vaccinating teachers and consistent levels of personal protective equipment, schools will earn back trust of more families, she said.
“And that has been largely, I think, glossed over in this conversation about why schools have had such a challenge to reopen; it’s about the trust,” Anderson said.
Juan Santacoloma, the multicultural community outreach specialist for Chesterfield schools, said many Latino and immigrant families came to him seeking advice on whether to send their children back to school.
“In some ways, they trust what I say,” said Santacoloma, who told families the decision had to be their own while providing them resources to help with the process — including information about vaccines and treatment options if their child contracts COVID-19.
Many Latino and immigrant parents will send their children back if that is what is being recommended to them from school leaders, Santacoloma said.
Ray Salazar, a 25-year career teacher in Chicago Public Schools who has a blog about educational and Latino issues, questioned if principals are communicating from the heart to their families or merely repeating or endorsing where the top school officials stand on reopening schools.
For the low-income families that do send their kids back, they likely lack choices, Salazar said. The families lack a child care option other than school, live in tight quarters and have limited medical resources.
When making pandemic decisions, it shouldn’t be about what benefits one person but rather the greater whole.
“The sad side to this pandemic is it’s pushed a sense of individualism to people. People are looking at this situation for what benefits them directly. We have to make sure we are considering the impact of our decision on our communities,” Salazar said.
Salazar’s family has been hit hard. Not only do they live in a Chicago ZIP code where the illness is a hot spot, Salazar’s father died from COVID-19 in July. He and his wife, who is also a teacher, are not sending their children back to school. Salazar’s 15-year-old son has the option to return, while his 13-year-old daughter’s charter school remains closed.
Another Chesterfield family, the Ragsdales, decided to send their children back to school, but the choice wasn’t easy.
Two of their children, a first- and a second-grader at Chalkley, were itching to be back in school. Johnny Ragsdale and his wife both work outside of their home.
Still, Ragsdale felt like his back was against a wall. He didn’t want to send them back, but he didn’t see what other choice he had.
Equipped with masks and hand sanitizer, the kids are back at Chalkley, while Ragsdale, with his fingers crossed, prays they won’t come home sick.
Chavonn Reed’s 7-year-old daughter, Mariah Scott, returned to the classroom at J.A. Chalkley Elementary School in Chesterfield County this month.
Staff writer John Ramsey contributed to this report.