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As Boston prepares to reopen elementary and middle schools full time, Asian American families are choosing to keep their children learning from home at rates higher than any other racial group, amid fears about both the pandemic and a growing tide of racism targeting their community.
Just 35 percent of Asian American public school students will likely return to their classrooms full time on April 26, according to school department data. By contrast, 59 percent of Black and Latino children and 72 percent of white children will likely attend school in person five days a week.
“Families are fearful that once their children go back to school in person they might get bullied by their peers,” said Grace Su, director of family services at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. “Bullying already existed before the pandemic, but now there is even more concern among parents about their children being targeted just because they are Asian American.”
Many families remain concerned about contracting COVID-19 at school or during the commute, and some also worry about the threat of racist attacks against Asian Americans, which have been on the rise nationally. Families who live in multigenerational households are worried on both counts for grandparents who share living space and sometimes help children get to school, as well as for their children.
The decisions appear to cut across economic lines, with low-income and middle-class families making similar choices.
Pihua Lin, a single mother of two girls from Chinatown, said she is increasingly apprehensive about classroom learning, especially after a COVID-19 outbreak in January at the day care where she works.
“That is why I’m so fearful and hesitant about sending my two girls back to school,” said Lin, who tested negative, speaking in Cantonese through an interpreter and noting that she’s especially worried about her youngest daughter’s safety. “When you let children outside [for recess] they are running around a lot and there is no social distancing.”
The data on learning preferences highlights a racial divide that has been quietly widening among Boston families. When the school year initially began last September, Black and Latino parents were as reluctant as Asian American parents about in-person learning, while white parents widely embraced it.
But now Black and Latino families appear more willing to give classroom learning a try: Nearly 60 percent of students from each of those groups will likely return to school buildings full time when classes resume at Boston’s K-8 schools on April 26, according to school data.
Asian American families, on the other hand, have drifted in the opposite direction, with slightly more families rejecting in-person learning in school surveys this spring than at the end of last summer.
Some Asian Americans may be more cautious because they are familiar with how previous public health crises, such as SARS and MERS, have affected East and Southeast Asia, some community members said.
“I do think there is more of a collective ethos — there is sort of a sense that we are collectively responsible for the health of the community,” said Christopher Fung, who teaches anthropology and Asian American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and who is keeping his daughter, a third-grader at the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, out of the classroom. “The safest thing to do is to . . . minimize the amount of time in public and in crowded spaces.”
The desire among Boston’s Asian American families to keep their children at home mirrors a national trend in public schools. In February, 69 percent of Asian fourth-graders and 78 percent of eighth-graders were taking classes at home full time online, compared to less than 60 percent of Black and Latino students and about a quarter of white students, according to federal statistics.
Throughout the pandemic, Asian Americans have suffered a rise in racist attacks, stoked in part by former president Donald Trump, who referred to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus” and “Kung flu.” The shooting deaths in Atlanta of eight people, six of them women of Asian descent, heightened fears among Asian Americans nationwide.
Some Boston School Committee members urged school officials last week to dig more deeply into Asian American families’ reluctance to return to classrooms. Asian students, many of whom are learning English and live in low-income households, comprise 9 percent of the system’s approximately 50,000 students.
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said she hoped anti-Asian racism wasn’t discouraging families, stressing that schools are safe places.
“I can’t speak to each and every family, but we are certainly dismayed by what’s happening publicly to our Asian community and we have condemned that,” she said.
The school system will hold a family workshop on reporting bias and talking to children about anti-Asian racism on April 19. Another one took place last Friday.
City Councilors Michelle Wu and Ed Flynn, who represents Chinatown, said they have been fielding many concerns from Asian Americans about their safety.
“In this moment of an acceleration of anti-Asian hate and violence, families are very aware and worried about what that could mean when it comes to elderly family members taking kids to school or experiences within the larger community,” Wu said, noting the coronavirus also remains a big concern, especially for those in multigenerational homes.
Wu and her husband wrestled with the decision to send their oldest son, 6, back to kindergarten at the Sumner Elementary School in Roslindale, but ultimately decided to do so. She said her son’s teacher put them at ease, walking parents through the safety procedures and answering questions.
But for many families, strong relationships with schools are not enough. Teresa Yang Fung, of Roxbury, is keeping her 8-year-old daughter at home. The risks of sending her back to the Hurley K-8 School in the South End at the end of the school year don’t seem worth it.
Yang Fung also said she was disappointed that BPS didn’t send a letter home to families after the Atlanta shootings to voice their outrage and offer support to the Asian American community. She found a short message the school system posted on its website insufficient.
The school system finally sent a letter to families on Tuesday, four weeks after the shootings.
Susan Ou of the Boston Chinese Parents and Community Alliance said exposure to the virus remains a concern for many parents who lost their jobs as service workers during the pandemic.
“[These parents] work in the restaurants, nail salons, or maybe other service areas. They were the ones who first got hit and they are unemployed,” Ou said. “They would rather keep the kids with them instead of sending them back to the school with caution.”
At the Josiah Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown, where Asian students represent more than 60 percent of the school’s population, just 15 percent have attended since the school reopened for part-time general education instruction last month.
Many classrooms are empty; some have one student.
“Some families have expressed to the teachers that they would love for their children to be in person because they know that is a stronger instructional setting for students, but they’re still deciding on whether or not they will send their students back in,” said Cynthia Soohoo, the principal, who is hoping to have 300 students when classrooms fully open later this month.
She’s been addressing families’ concerns about racism, especially targeting grandparents accompanying children to school, through parent council meetings, family Chinese chats, weekly newsletters, and videos, including one she did on her cellphone showing off the safety precautions in the school.
One Quincy School mother, who asked to be identified by her last name, Yu, plans to send her daughter back to her classroom. The third-grader is increasingly losing her focus on remote learning and her grades are sliding.
But Yu is worried that going to school could increase the family’s exposure to the virus, especially since the family would need to take public transit to get there. She also questions the effectiveness of the 45-year-old school building’s ventilation.
“Ultimately sending her back is a test to see how the school is taking its precautions,” said Yu, speaking in Cantonese through an interpreter. She said she’d pull her out if it doesn’t feel safe.