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The Great Divide

Educational inequality likely to widen this fall as white students return to school and students of color learn from home

Laura Gamba, 14, waited with brother Nicolas, 10, while her mother, Luz Gamba,  received notes from teacher Sherry Spaulding.
Laura Gamba, 14, waited with brother Nicolas, 10, while her mother, Luz Gamba, received notes from teacher Sherry Spaulding.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

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CHELSEA—As a strange new school year booted up online last week in living rooms and kitchens across this compact, densely populated city north of Boston, moms like Nery Martinez and Graciela Galdamez tried to believe that it was for the best. But it did not take long for doubt and worry to creep in.

At Martinez’s home on Wednesday, her 14-year-old son’s school-issued computer did not work, so he attended classes on his cellphone. Her 15-year-old daughter had a functioning computer—a gift from her grandmother, after her school computer failed—but she had to be coaxed to stay connected after she declared she wasn’t learning anything.

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“I felt like I was about to cry,” said Martinez, who lost her full-time job of more than 20 years, at a food distribution company, during the pandemic.

Galdamez, meanwhile, still had no computer for her 5-year-old son to use for kindergarten, which begins on Wednesday—and no idea how she will help him learn while also working at her full-time job from home.

“Everyone’s working, most places are open, so I don’t know why the schools are still closed,” she said. “I think there is more control now over [COVID-19], and the best thing for the children is to go to school.”

But in Chelsea, where 88 percent of students are Hispanic and 6 percent are white, students are not going back into their schools this month. And while parents here know better than most the pandemic’s deadly toll and ongoing threat—no place in Massachusetts was harder hit than this one—they also fear the lasting consequences for their children’s education.

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That danger is real across the state, where roughly two-thirds of Black and Hispanic students live in districts where schools are starting the year remotely, according to a preliminary analysis of state data by The Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for educational equity. By contrast, most white students—about 70 percent—live in school districts with “hybrid” back-to-school plans that include some learning time inside school classrooms, the analysis found.

The disparity is not surprising, given the pandemic’s tighter grip on many cities and its disproportionate impact on people of color, as well as the heightened complexity of reopening school buildings safely in large urban systems with aging infrastructure.

Nonetheless, the demographic split between students learning in and out of school ratchets the stakes for remote learning even higher, turning its quality into a matter of educational equity.

“Even before the pandemic, Massachusetts had vast divides in learning opportunities between privileged and underserved populations—divides that fall along the lines of race and class,” said Natasha Ushomirsky, Massachusetts state director for The Education Trust. “There’s a very real possibility that these divides will grow significantly this year, especially if we don’t ensure high-quality remote learning."

In March, when schools abruptly closed to limit the spread of the virus, a million students statewide plunged into online learning. Their experience was marked by jarring inconsistencies, depending on where they lived and which school they attended. Students at some charter and private schools spent hours each day in live online classes, while many public school families across the state complained of near-total disengagement, with students deprived of meaningful work and daily contact with teachers.

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School leaders vowed to overhaul remote learning over the summer. But much of their time was instead spent devising three detailed back-to-school plans mandated by the state, one for fully in-person learning, another for all-remote school, and a “hybrid” blend. Most districts initially embraced a hybrid model, with reduced numbers of students attending school on staggered part-time schedules. But as teachers raised health concerns and facilities managers scrambled, some cities pulled back plans to reopen buildings.

In Chelsea, high rates of illness made the necessary course of action clearer. With a positive test rate for the virus near 5 percent, the city of 35,000 was among the first school districts to announce a fully remote start, in mid-August, setting aside plans to offer a full-time, in-school option for kindergarten and students with disabilities.

Ultimately, all five of the state’s largest school districts opted to start school online and bring students back to buildings later. Those districts—Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lynn, and Brockton—educate more than 130,000 students; in four of the five, more than 70 percent of students are Black and Hispanic.

There, as in smaller, whiter places, public opinion on the right way to reopen was sharply divided— sometimes along racial lines. In a survey last month of 38,000 students in Boston, 73 percent of white respondents said they favored a hybrid model, while just 46 percent of Black and 45 percent of Hispanic students said they preferred to spend time inside school buildings.

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The numbers reflect the burden borne by neighborhoods of color since the public health crisis began: in a state where the overall population is 71 percent white, only 46 percent of COVID-19 cases have involved white patients, a Harvard study found.

That leaves parents like Nery Martinez feeling painfully conflicted.

“There are no options,” said the Chelsea mother, who lost her job because she had to stay home with her children in the spring; she spoke through a Spanish interpreter. “You can’t send them to school, but being home all the time is also very stressful. Teenagers are not like little kids—you can tell them to sit down, stay here, but it’s very hard to keep them there.”

Several mothers interviewed in Chelsea said their children are frustrated and angry, or suffering from depression, because they are cut off from school and friends.

The mothers acknowledged they are not doing much better themselves.

Some have made enormous sacrifices to try and preserve their children’s education. Tanairi Garcia, a single mother who works full time at the nonprofit Chelsea Collaborative, said she moved in with her brother so she could afford to send her first-grader to a Catholic school in Revere where he can attend in person this fall.

“He’s a hands-on learner, and you don’t learn that way online,” she said. “It’s been very difficult to cope—I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone who can’t read or speak English.”

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Language barriers are among the daunting obstacles faced by poor, immigrant families as they try to navigate the rocky shoals of online learning. Luz Gamba, a mother of three in Lowell, said through a Spanish interpreter that her children struggled last week to follow their remote lessons in English, because the teachers spoke very quickly, and the family has only been in the United States for 18 months.

Gamba struggled to help them, hindered by her own lack of English, and lingering exhaustion from her overnight shifts on an assembly line at a plastics plant. And although the family received three working laptops from the children’s schools, their simultaneous use overwhelmed the Wi-Fi in their apartment.

“My oldest was very upset, because he lost the Internet so many times he lost track of what his teacher was saying,” she said.

Technical support for families is among the most critical resources schools can provide to ensure successful remote learning, said Ushomirsky of The Education Trust. Districts should also prioritize contact with teachers—in small groups as well as larger classes—and the state must collect data clearly showing what districts are doing and where they’re falling short.

“It’s a matter of everyone in the system working to understand each family, where they are, and what they need right now,” she said.

To be sure, plenty of suburbs with few students of color—and low rates of COVID-19—also reopened with all or most students learning remotely. In some, including Newton and Brookline, frustrated parents have advocated forcefully for sending all students to school. Two parent-led groups, Bring Kids Back MA and Open Our Schools MA, held rallies this month to demand in-person learning.

Amelia Cody, an 8th-grader, studied remotely in her bedroom.
Amelia Cody, an 8th-grader, studied remotely in her bedroom. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Even in places using a hybrid approach, the majority of students go into buildings just two days a week, with most of their schooling happening at home. Fifty miles south of Chelsea in North Attleborough, where 79 percent of students are white, eighth-grader Amelia Cody spent her first three days of classes on her school-issued laptop in her bedroom, adjusting to a new schedule of 95-minute blocks that included civics, Spanish, math, and gym.

The 13-year-old, who will attend school in person two days a week for now, said her remote sessions went smoothly, and her classes—while longer—were more engaging than she had expected. “They’re making it pretty fun,” she said.

But she was most excited about her first day back inside her middle school tomorrow. After stocking up on new face masks and her favorite hand sanitizer (Bath & Body Works warm vanilla sugar scent), she felt ready to return, no matter how strange it might seem when she gets there.

In neighboring Attleboro last week, a high school student who tested positive for COVID-19 went to school anyway, exposing classmates who were then forced to quarantine, and renewing doubts about the wisdom of sending students back.

Cody said she and her friends have accepted that their school will probably close again. Until then, she plans to make the most of it.

“I’m excited to get into the building, and see people I haven’t seen in a long time,” she said. “I’m looking forward to meeting my teachers. I learn better in person.”


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.