How decision to resume school might affect Minnesota’s communities of color

5 people stand on the front step of a house.
Areli Cardoso (left) holds infant son Arturo Sanchez next to her fifth grade son Carlos Sanchez (center), while daughter Vanessa Cardoso holds her daughter Amai Rani outside of their Bloomington, Minn., home on July 17.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Areli Cardoso does not want to send her 11-year-old son, Carlos Sanchez, back to in-person classes in Minneapolis this fall.

But she’s not eager to go back to distance learning, either. 

Most of what she remembers from the school shutdown that began in March is the stress and the noise: the constant running around to keep up with caring for two infants — her youngest son and her granddaughter — and helping her husband on the weekend with his job cleaning a bank. 

On top of that, she was scrambling to keep track of all the confusing emails and group video calls from her fifth grader’s school. 

“Our life keeps happening,” Cardoso said. “The babies cry, I keep going up and down [the stairs]. Somebody is talking, somebody is yelling.” 

It’s obvious to her that distance learning is not a good option for anyone in her family. She knows Carlos didn’t learn much in his online classes this spring, even though he finished the year with flying colors. The online classes, she said, weren’t engaging or challenging. It took constant help from her and her adult daughter Vanessa, who’s more fluent in English than she is, to keep him on task and keep their full house quiet enough for him to concentrate. 

“They are kids,” Cardoso said. “We have to let them know: It’s your time to connect to Zoom, it’s your time to see your video, it’s your time to do things ... It’s been really challenging for the whole family.”

But the prospect of sending Carlos back to a school building where he might be exposed to COVID-19 is a risk Cardoso is unwilling to take. Hers is a four-generation household: the youngest, her grandchild, is 4 months old. The oldest, her parents, are in their 60s with risk factors that would make a COVID-19 infection dangerous for them. 

Minnesota officials have told schools and families to prepare for three different scenarios for resuming classes in the fall: in-person classes, distance learning and a hybrid of the two. And they promise they’ll make a final decision about what the school year will look like by the end of next week. But as the number of new COVID-19 cases rises across the state, none of the options is a perfect choice for most students — and the reality for students of color is a disproportionate impact on their health, their families and their education. 

A recent informal Minnesota Department of Education survey of families found the majority want schools to open for in-person learning in the fall. 

But the survey results did not offer a full picture of Minnesota students: They did not proportionately represent the state’s communities of color. Of the Black, Latinx and Asian families who did respond, the majority said they did not feel comfortable sending their students back to in-person classes — or were unsure about the prospect.

Minnesota’s education system has long produced better outcomes and opportunities for its white students than its students of color. The pandemic stands to widen those gaps even further. 

The disparities for Minnesota’s children of color go far beyond education. Children of color and their families in the state are more likely to experience homelessness, more likely to face poverty, more likely to be exposed to COVID-19. Their family members are more likely to have lost their jobs in the pandemic and are more likely to die from COVID-19 if they contract it. 

Whatever scenario Minnesota officials choose for a return to school, it’s sure to disproportionately affect communities of color.

National numbers tell a similar story. All workers in the United States have seen devastating job losses, but Black, Hispanic and Native American workers have had more extensive job losses. U.S. residents of all races have died from COVID-19, but Latino and African American residents have been three times as likely to be infected as their white neighbors and nearly twice as likely to die.

A school custodian cleans a desk in a classroom.
Des Moines Public Schools custodian Cynthia Adams cleans a desk in a classroom at Brubaker Elementary School on July 8 in Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall | AP file

Cardoso, like thousands of parents across Minnesota, is waiting anxiously for the state’s announcement on what the upcoming school year will look like. While she waits, she thinks about what it would mean to keep her son home from school in order to protect her family’s health. 

”We as a family value that education is the best that we can give to our children. We want them to have the best that we could not have for ourselves,” Cardoso said. “But at the same time, as a family, as a Latino community, it’s really hard.”

Cardoso, who is Mexican American, knows others in her community don’t have the same flexibility she has to stay home with their kids. For many, continuing at-home learning doesn’t just mean lost educational opportunities — it means they can’t go to work. 

Rosita Balch, who works with Latino families as a part of the Latino Youth Development Collaborative, said many in her community are caught in an impossible situation. 

“People work in restaurants, they clean homes, they do construction. So they go and work when they’re called. They need to work because they need the money,” Balch said. “If families have kids that are 10 [or] 12 [or] older, those kids probably have to stay at home, taking care of the rest of the kids.”

Balch recognizes there’s no perfect solution for school in the fall. But she said the families she’s talking to want schools to give them the opportunity to decide what’s best for them. 

“They wish the schools would [give] them an option ... both options,” Balch said. The parents that need to send them to school, send them. And the parents that could stay at home, they do that.

‘I cried almost every single day’

The state Education Department’s family survey found that Asian American respondents were the least likely to want to send their children back to in-person classes. 

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the St. Paul-based Coalition of Asian American Leaders, has seen the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Asian Americans in her community. And she’s hearing from families that they’re worried about what might happen if students return to school buildings this fall.

“Even those who are low-income and struggling feel very unprepared to send their kids back to school in the fall,” said Urabe, who is Hmong American and herself the mother of a 9-year-old. “They’re really worried about the health trade-off of sending their kids back to school even though they have to feed their family.”

Minnesota officials have instructed schools to provide parents with the option to keep their kids at home for any reason, should in-person instruction happen during the upcoming school year. But it’s less clear what public options are available to those parents who want in-person instruction, should state or local officials decide not to open school buildings.  

Pang Xiong, a mother of six who lives in New Brighton, Minn., is not eager to send her children back to in-person classes. 

“I’m leaning more towards distance learning, even though I feel like it’s been overwhelming,” she said. “One, I think about the safety of our teachers. Two, I think about the safety of our kids.”

A young girl holds up a white board with handwritten letter "A"s.
EllaRose and MangKu Yang complete schoolwork at home in April.
Courtesy of Pang Foua Xiong

Xiong spent the spring semester leading her children, who range in age from 2 to 18, through distance learning — and she hated it.

“I was just so overwhelmed. I think there was a period where, [for] two months, I think, I cried almost every single day,” Xiong said. “There were a lot of voices yelling in the home, and we were all just frustrated.”

Her 14-year-old son, Cole Yang, missed his friends. It was hard for him to find time to complete his assignments, because he spent much of his time helping his younger siblings with their own school work — and running internet and technical help for the entire family. 

“It was a pretty big transition for me because I didn’t get the help I needed,” he said. “Teachers, they’re usually right by your side so you can ask questions. And I felt like it was kind of rushed.”

Four siblings stand in a room.
Priya, Cole, Quiben and Ethan Yang
Courtesy of Pang Foua Xiong

Technical difficulties meant that he got lower grades than he thought he deserved.

He found the school software to be confusing, and he kept forgetting to hit the right buttons in the right spots to turn in assignments. 

But he, too, is wary of a return to in-person learning. 

“I have a lot of siblings,” he said.

“And if one of us contracts the virus, then the whole family kind of gets it.”

Black and brown communities ‘deserve to get more now’

Neither scientists nor officials fully understand the public health implications of reopening schools for in-person learning during the coronavirus pandemic. While some children have become seriously ill with COVID-19, most tend to have milder symptoms than adults. And researchers don’t yet have a good handle on the long-term impacts of getting infected with the virus.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended that school and government officials “start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” It’s said closed schools lead to learning loss, social isolation and mental, emotional and other health impacts. But the organization has also said that public health agencies must use “science and community circumstances” to “guide decision-making.”

Dr. Nathan Chomilo, a pediatrician and board member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, agrees that decision-makers should use science to guide their decisions. But he said he is concerned that the AAP failed to figure into its recommendations the effects that in-person schooling would have on communities of color. 

In his mind, if Minnesota state leaders want to be equitable about resuming school in the fall, they’ll focus on getting money and resources to the students and schools that need it most.

“Ideally, we’d be opening schools with resources delineated ... at the schools we know have faced gaps before COVID,” he said. “If we’re really intent on … addressing these disparities, brown and Black communities that have not received the same support and same opportunities in the past, deserve to get more now in response to the COVID-19 crisis.”

For Chomilo, if state and education leaders want to equitably reopen schools, they will need to be careful they don’t use a “colorblind” approach to education funding

“We shouldn’t have schools with football teams, robotics clubs and show choirs — things that are in ideal times really good parts of a well-rounded education, but right now we need to focus on everyone having the bare necessities,” Chomilo said. “If we did do a reopening strategy that’s colorblind, we’ll end up seeing the same disparities and probably worsened because of everything else COVID is worsening.” 

‘Their personal circumstances are dire’

For Hopkins Public Schools Superintendent Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed, the insidious health, economic and education disparities her students of color face were obvious long before the pandemic hit. As she tries to plan for the start of school this fall, those students are at the top of her mind. 

“What I think about is: How we can dismantle the system we have, while building an anti-racist institution that loves and embraces and highly educates every single student — especially our kids of color?” she said. “It’s our kids and families of color right now that are feeling the extra brunt of the systemic racism.” 

For Mhiripiri-Reed, the work of being anti-racist comes in the form of hiring and honoring more educators of color — and mobilizing her school community toward a common goal of being anti-racist. 

It’s also working to give students and families of color a choice in how they will experience school this fall, no matter what scenario state officials choose.

“This whole idea of personalizing the educational experience. I mean, if there’s a time for personalization in public schools, it’s now — because not only do families want choice, but we have families who absolutely need to have a few different options to choose from because their personal circumstances are dire,” Mhiripiri-Reed said.

Minnesota state guidance on resuming school in the 2020-2021 academic year includes instructions for school leaders to “ask how your actions are reinforcing or removing structural inequity.” It also advises schools to “seek out voices” from communities that will be most impacted by their plans. 

But Ramona Kitto-Stately, who’s project director for We Are Still Here MN, a nonprofit group working to change the narratives about indigenous people, said she’s not confident any of the options for returning to school in the fall will work well for communities of color.

“When we’re talking about opening schools and those three scenarios,” Kitto-Stately said, “The pink elephant in the room is ... who it’s impacting: People of color.” 

Kitto-Stately has also worked for the Osseo school district, and focuses much of her nonprofit work on the education system. Of all the scenarios for resuming school, she’s most concerned about a return to in-person learning when schools don’t have all the staff, funding, personal protective equipment, ventilation systems, time and training she thinks they need to keep kids safe.  

“If we do go back into a classroom ... the people who are most apt to take that disease back home are the students of color,” she said. “I think option one [full-time, in-person learning], as much as people think they can get back to normal, is probably not going to work.”

Instead, Kitto-Stately wants school leaders and policy-makers to bring more people of color to the table to help make decisions. 

“When I make a decision, I ask everybody. I don’t care if I agree or disagree. I need to know all of the things. And that’s what critical thinking is,” Kitto-Stately said. “Make a demand that there are more people of color at the table.”

No matter what’s decided, she wants schools to focus on social and emotional learning for students, as well as culturally integrated and accurate content. 

Still, she’s worried Minnesota adults just aren’t ready to give kids what they need in school.

“We have to think about how our communities are not coming together on some of the even basic safety procedures in a pandemic. … There’s no clear agreement about even wearing a mask,” she said. “How do we expect to bring people together in a school where little kids don’t understand social distancing? … As communities, we have to come together to save lives.”

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based off Minnesota Department of Health cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.