Back to School: Local Black Parents on Making a Tough Call

The national narrative was that Black families were among the most hesitant about a return to school buildings. One North Portland school bucked that trend last spring, by building trust among families.

By Fiona McCann August 17, 2021 Published in the Fall 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: By Mike Novak

Last February, as the push to fully reopen schools gained momentum, articles appeared in publications from New York to Baltimore to Mississippi—Black parents, by and large, were not going to send their kids back. The reasons were manifold: the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black communities, lack of access to health care, racism in schools, and, overwhelmingly, a lack of trust by parents that schools could keep their kids safe.

But some Black parents made a very different choice, buoyed by trust not of the system, but their own teachers and principals.

Case in point: North Portland’s Boise-Eliot/Humboldt Elementary, which until a couple of years ago was the state’s only remaining majority–African American school and still has a sizable Black population. There, 64 percent of Black children returned to school, roughly the same percentage as their white counterparts. (Among those who returned are this reporter’s children, who are white.)

In contrast, at Rosa Parks and César Chávez, other North Portland schools with well-above-district-average populations of children of color, fewer than 50 percent of all students chose hybrid learning.                   

“At first I was like, ‘We’re gonna stay home,’” says Nina Alexis, parent to four, three of whom attended Boise-Eliot/Humboldt in the 2020–2021 school year. “At the last minute I decided to go back, and I never would have done it had it not been for [the principal] Mr. Kaveh’s great communication.”

Though many parents at Boise-Eliot/Humboldt joined her, there were also a number of local Black parents who were publicly vocal against reopening schools for reasons that followed those outlined in the stories making headlines around the country. 

Wherever they landed, it wasn’t an easy choice.

“As we all know, PPS doesn’t always have the best interests of our children in mind when making decisions,” says another BEH parent, Alshawnda Martin, who also works as the school’s PTA president.

Martin’s fifth grader had struggled with online learning initially but found her footing. Yet when it came to a decision about in-person learning, she begged to go back to finish out her time at BEH. Because Martin is active in the school, she says she witnessed firsthand the careful preparations being made for reopening the building, which helped build her own trust and arrive at the decision to let her daughter return.

Tina Turner, the school’s former assistant principal and herself a Black mother of three, understands Black parents’ reluctance to engage with a system that has historically failed to prioritize their children. “A lot of us don’t trust the system—the system isn’t set up for us,” says Turner. “And I think oftentimes if you are not able to access the information that’s going to make you feel comfortable, you just tend not to deal with that.”

She says Boise-Eliot/Humboldt reached out to parents individually and organized their in-school options to suit as many schedules as they could.

“We chose our hybrid option in the morning and in the afternoon because we knew that providing both opportunities would help more students be able to access school,” she says. “Ultimately, our families appreciated the fact that we were being transparent and saying, ‘Yeah, we don’t have all the answers, but what we do know we will share with you.’”

Turner sent her own children back to in-person learning at their Northeast neighborhood PPS school, Vernon. “It was a struggle being at home,” she admits. So, when the time came for her to make the call, she weighed her options. “Either I continue to be afraid, and keep my kids at home, or I go back to work and be a part of the community, and take my chances,” she says.

Though the spread of the Delta variant has changed the calculations about this fall for some, Martin said in June that she was glad she made the call she did at the time, despite the risks that existed then. “Sending my kids back was the best decision that I made,” she says. “Not for just me but for my children. They needed that.”

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