When Chesterfield County Public Schools reopened its doors five days a week this past winter, about 44% of students in the district returned.
In a school district with a majority of minority students, more white students than their peers of color accepted the offer to return to a normal learning environment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Having suffered from COVID-19 in every regard, including hospitalizations, deaths, food insecurity and job losses, parents of color overall were less willing to send their children back into school than white parents, according to a July 2020 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Of the approximately 26,413 elementary, middle and high school students who did return, about 54% were white, 20% were Latino, 18% were Black, 5% were students of two or more races and 1.5% were Asian, according to schools data provided through a Freedom of the Information Act request. Some values were low enough that the school system did not provide them as they could identify a student.
While it remains unclear how many students are returning for the third school year under the cloud of COVID-19, the school officials are encouraging all students to return in the fall.
Some students may be entering a school building for the first time in 17 months or for the first time ever, which can bring challenges the school system is looking to overcome, such as restoring routines and relationships.
The school system is anticipating that a return to “status quo” for learning will further drive a wedge between students who succeed and those who struggle in school.
Families who did send their kids back to school this past winter wrestled with the decision. Some ultimately sent their children back because they trusted the school’s principal or because they saw no other choice.
At Midlothian High School, where students of color are about 25% of the school’s total population, approximately 7.3% of them returned to the classroom, compared to about 23% of their white peers who also returned.
For Falling Creek Middle School, where about 93% of the school’s population are students of color, approximately 872 remained learning virtually, while about 447 went back to the classroom.
While the data on returning students is from April 26, parents made a binding decision in January to send their children back to school.
Throughout the past school year, various school system staff members would recite the following statement: “We believe face-to-face instruction is best for all students under normal circumstances, given that students miss much more than academics when not in school. We want students to return to school as quickly as possible, but when it is safe to so for all involved.”
Chesterfield’s youngest students began returning in February, as the state and county had experienced its worst month with the virus. Statewide in mid-January, the average number of new cases reached 6,100, while more than 80 people a day were dying.
The School Board voted 4-1 on Jan. 12 to bring students back five days a week, less than two months after all schools were abruptly closed due to a rise in COVID-19 cases.
Of the approximately 33,460 students who remained in a virtual learning environment beginning in February, about 40% were white, 33% were Black, 17% were Latino, 5.3% were students of two or more races and 3.6% were Asian, according to district data.
The Chesterfield school district did not have comparable data from the fall of 2020, when students were either learning virtually or participating in hybrid days, said Stephanie Frick, an assistant School Board attorney.
In April, the district began to look forward to the fall return. While highly encouraging for all students to return to the classroom, the district offered two virtual options for the upcoming year.
Annette Anderson, the deputy director for the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University, said there are multiple factors at play for families who want to continue with virtual learning.
For children 11 years old and younger, who cannot receive a COVID vaccine, parents may have concerns about their safety if they return, Anderson said. And for those whose children are vaccinated, questions linger as to whether vaccines are effective against the growing delta variant.
“So, for those families, the return to in-person schooling will be a slower return or possibly nonexistent,” Anderson said.
Anderson expects between 5% and 10% of families to remain virtual when schools reopen in the fall.
“I think [the] global health pandemic coming on the heels of racial reckoning, and also this economic adjustment …. People are making life shifts because of how the pandemic has forced them to rethink everything, and their children’s education is certainly among those decisions and this is particularly poignant for families of color,” Anderson said.
Parents of color, Anderson said, want to continue to have choices about their children’s public education, not an either/or — meaning not either a full return or a virtual option — but rather, to make choices yearly, quarterly or every six months.
With a deadline of June 1, K-8 students had the opportunity to enroll in a virtual academy where they would be assigned a virtual teacher and be in a virtual classroom with students in the same grade across the county.
According to a schools spokesman, the district’s instructional team is confirming final virtual academy numbers.
Chesterfield high school students, are not offered a virtual academy, rather they can enroll in CCPSOnline an existing online course program until July 9.
The chart has been updated. In a previous version of the chart, the percentages for Black and Asian students had been reversed.