Minority Students Left Behind As White House, Teachers' Unions Resist Reopening Schools

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March 24, 2021

White students have returned to the classroom faster than their minority counterparts, worsening racial disparities in education as teachers' unions and the Biden administration drag their feet on reopening schools, according to a Department of Education study released Wednesday.

Seventy-six percent of fourth- and eighth-grade students are enrolled in schools that offer some form of in-person learning. But 58 percent of black students continue to learn at home, as do 56 percent of Hispanic students and 68 percent of Asian students. Just 27 percent of white students are still attending school remotely.

The Biden administration pledged to reopen schools within the first 100 days of the president’s term. It has since walked back that plan despite a scientific consensus that it is safe to resume in-person learning. Studies have shown that pandemic school closures have disproportionately harmed black and Latino students.

The National Center for Education Statistics conducted the National Assessment of Educational Progress as part of the Biden administration’s push to reopen schools by April. While nearly half of white students surveyed are learning in-person, only 33 percent of Hispanic students, 28 percent of black students, and 15 percent of Asian students have returned to the classroom. 

Education secretary Miguel Cardona called the study "encouraging" but admitted the data reveal "critical gaps" to classroom learning access for students of color. 

"Today’s findings … show encouraging early progress in states and communities’ efforts to reopen schools safely and quickly," Cardona said in a statement on Wednesday. "While schools continue to show us what’s possible as they work to open their doors … we know that we still have a lot of ground to go."

Teachers' unions in major U.S. cities have pressured districts to keep schools closed during the pandemic and have demanded their members receive priority access to the vaccine. CDC director Rochelle Walensky said in February that vaccinating teachers "is not a prerequisite" for safely returning to the classroom.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki in February walked back the Biden administration’s promise to reopen schools within 100 days, claiming the administration wanted "some" students in the classroom "at least one day a week." On Wednesday, President Joe Biden released $81 billion of the $122 billion earmarked for K-12 schools in the American Rescue Plan in an effort to expedite the reopening process.