When Eliana Walls’ mind drifts away from her class Zoom screen, she’s back at Polytechnic High School. The memories are mundane, but nonetheless special to Walls.
Some days she imagines herself walking to the lunch cart with her friends, talking over the roar of students’ voices in the quad. Other days her mind wanders to the lunches she’d share with classmates in the library.
“It’s so true when they say you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone,” said Walls, a junior at Poly. “I started missing the basic stuff — waking up and having a routine.”
So when Walls received an email from her principal announcing a school reopening on April 26, she couldn’t wait to go back to that routine. But after a conversation with her mom, it was decided that she will not be one of the 954 Poly High School students who returned to classrooms this spring.
According to an instructional setting survey conducted by the Long Beach Unified School District, only 25% of Poly High School students returned to in-person hybrid learning — an education model that alternates students’ schedules between in-person and virtual school days. For those who’ve opted for in-person learning, it’s their first time stepping into a classroom since the LBUSD closed schools on March 13, 2020 due to COVID-19.
Across LBUSD high schools, about 63% of students opted for hybrid instruction, according to LBUSD data obtained by VoiceWaves. What’s more, LBUSD high schools with a higher percentage of students of color had fewer pupils returning to in-person education in April.
For instance, only 35% of students opted for in-person learning at Cabrillo High School, a school with a 1% white student population. Meanwhile, Wilson High School had the most students opting to return to in-person learning at 54%. At 19% of their student population, Wilson is the high school with the highest percentage of white students.
And this is a trend that is reflected in LBUSD middle schools and elementary schools.
Chart created by Paula Kiley
Because the LBUSD instructional setting survey never asked parents to justify the reason for their decision, there’s no definite answer as to why schools with larger student of color populations had fewer pupils returning to classrooms. Though 49% of respondents to a June 2020 Parent Home Learning Survey cited health and safety as the reason they preferred online learning.
“To keep things simple and focused on who was returning, we didn’t ask for the reasoning for families’ decisions,” said Chris Eftychiou, LBUSD director of public information, in an email. “Anecdotally, however, we know that often the reasons have to do with safety, scheduling and childcare, including childcare for younger siblings.”
For Walls, the reason for her decision to decline in-person learning for what remained of the school year was simple: she and her family do not feel it is safe to return to school under the current COVID-19 conditions.
“As of right now, [my mom] just doesn’t think it’s the smartest option and neither do I,” Walls said about in-person learning. “And I also don’t think that it’s safe right now because I have higher risk people in my house and I would not want to go out and endanger them or compromise their health because of a decision that I want.”
This fear is common among communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. LBUSD board member Juan Benitez, who represents school board district 3, says many of his constituents, many of whom are families of color, are concerned for the safety of their children after seeing COVID-19 ravage their communities.
“Many of the parents in my district … think their students are safer at home, in spite of the challenges they’re facing at home,” said Benitez in a Dec. 15 LBUSD meeting.
Overcrowding, which is incredibly common amongst communities of color, is another factor that places Walls’ family at an even higher-risk. In Long Beach, about 25% of occupied housing units house four or more people, according to 2019 U.S. Census Data. Walls’ family falls into that statistic. At the moment, Walls lives with her younger brother, twin brother, older sister, older brother and her mom.
Kayla Coulter, a senior at Cabrillo High School, lives with several family members, many of whom had previously contracted COVID-19.
“I experienced living with multiple family members with COVID-19. I even experienced the symptoms of COVID-19 for two weeks and had to undergo the quarantine that my parents had to go through,” Coulter said in a March 23 media briefing hosted by Californians for Justice. “So I have huge concerns for families of color going through the same experience. Black and brown families have been hit hardest during this pandemic.”
But despite her concerns and close experiences with COVID-19, Coulter plans to opt-in for a hybrid learning experience. “The biggest reason for my decision is because I kind of miss school a lot,” Coulter said. “I would like to experience my senior year at school and doing all the things that previous seniors last year have done.”
Despite Walls’ desire to return to Poly High, she’s had to balance her desires with the safety of her family. It’s a difficult decision that’s been made by many families of color in Benitez’s district and it’s the reason why he continues to highlight virtual learners across LBUSD.
“It’s important to remind the students who will remain at home that they are not forgotten and will continue to be supported even though the return to in-person learning for some students has been getting a lot of attention,” Benitez said in a March 25 Instagram post. “As we focus on those students that will have the opportunity to start returning to in-person learning next week, let’s not forget about the thousands of students that will remain online. They are all superheroes.”