Last fall, a poll released by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Undefeated showed that seven out of 10 Black Americans believe that people are treated unfairly based on race or ethnicity when they seek medical care. It’s a belief rooted in centuries of mistreatment and institutional racism, from the infamous government-backed Tuskegee Syphilis Study that ran from the 1930s to the 1970s, (in which participants were tricked into believing they were receiving free medical care to treat syphilis, but were instead left untreated for decades and simply observed) to contemporary treatment disparities that result in outcomes such as markedly higher rates of maternal mortality among Black mothers.
This historic mistrust of powerful institutions—particularly public health institutions—directly impacts school reopening efforts during the pandemic. In February, the CDC issued guidelines on school reopenings that do not require teachers to be vaccinated. A Pew Research Study conducted that same month found that only 20 percent of Black adults felt that schools should reopen as soon as possible, even if not all teachers who wanted a vaccination had received it, compared to nearly half of White adults. Anecdotally, many Black parents I’ve heard from say they are not confident in their school district’s ability to keep their child safe because in the past public health systems have disproportionately impacted Black communities in negative ways.
But some schools are actively seeking to dismantle this legacy of mistrust—and succeeding. At College Achieve Public Schools in New Jersey, a public charter school network that serves mostly students of color who fall below the poverty line, we know that if parents aren’t enthusiastic, engaged participants in their school community, they are far less likely to achieve their goals of sending children to and through college. Long before the global public health emergency shined a spotlight on the gaping disparities in youth outcomes, the safety of school facilities, and parental trust across school districts around the country, we were intentional about building relationships with our parents. We build relationships based on trust, following through on the commitments we make to our families, and arm our parents with the tools they need to successfully advocate for their children.
One example of this is the Parent University program, a program that’s offered to all parents across our school network. Parent University offers weekly virtual courses for parents that focus on a range of subjects from the practical—such as resume building, interview preparation and financial literacy—to the social-emotional, such as parent support check-ins and classes on how to have tough but necessary conversations with children. The classes are run by our staff members and have been wildly successful. They have provided an opportunity for our parent community to get to know our staff better and have strengthened our school community in myriad ways.
As a result of these initiatives, parent engagement has grown considerably, daily student attendance rates are at 94 percent during the pandemic, academic outcome regression is limited and many students continue on their upward trajectory even during campus closures. Encouragingly, a community of trust has emerged.
When the pandemic hit, our schools swiftly and successfully pivoted to meet the needs of our communities. Within weeks, we provided our families with the essentials they needed to continue learning including two meals a day, supplemental tutoring, school supplies, and Wi-Fi access and Chromebooks for those who needed them. Recognizing that basic needs were going unmet, we secured through a statewide program $500-per-child monthly meal cards for our families who were struggling. We also felt the painful impact of the pandemic on our school communities very personally as we lost several parents and a beloved teacher to COVID-19. In response, we doubled down on counseling and mental health check-ins. We have also offered a virtual Saturday school tutoring option that has provided additional support throughout the pandemic to our students who need additional academic support.
As schools began to reopen, more than half of our students chose to return to in-person school, higher than the national average of 28 percent and 33 percent among Black and Hispanic families, respectively. Following the CDC guidelines and strict safety protocols, we have been able to safely and successfully keep our schools open in a hybrid model. Families of color have had good reasons to feel mistrust towards public institutions in the U.S.; there’s a long and troubling history behind this sentiment. But there are some school systems seeking to change that, and it starts with earning community trust and delivering on promises.