The COVID-19 pandemic gave moms and dads an inside look at what their kids’ learning experience is like, sparking concern and greater engagement. (Photo by Word in Black)

By Maya Pottiger,
Word in Black

School buses stopped running, classrooms turned virtual, and the traditional education system turned upside down. In the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the days of parents and guardians sending kids off to school and not reuniting until dinnertime were over. Instead, many families were holed up inside, 24 hours a day, working or attending classes in a shared space.

Though it wasn’t without difficulties, the new setup gave parents an insight into their children’s school-day lives that wasn’t previously available.

“Parents have had a front-row seat to their child’s education,” said David Park, the senior vice president of strategy and communication at Learning Heroes. “They’ve seen where their child excels and where they need additional support.”

It’s also allowed parents to be more engaged with their children’s education than ever before — particularly among Black parents. As a result, their relationship with the schools and teachers are changing as they take a more active role in ensuring their child is set up for success. But it hasn’t all been positive.

“When it comes to Black parents, what’s striking is that there’s so much more worry and concern than there was before the pandemic,” Park said. “This is really across all parent demographics, but with Black parents in particular.”

Top concerns among Black parents

A new Learning Heroes study, Hidden in Plain Sight, surveyed parents and educators across the country about top concerns and ways forward. The top concerns among Black parents were having politicians making decisions about what students learn (64 percent), children’s happiness and emotional well-being (62 percent), and children being exposed to violence at school (59 percent). These were relatively similar to the top concerns of Hispanic and White parents.

“Parents want their children to be happy and safe. They want their child to be protected socially and emotionally,” Park said. “They want to team up with their school and their child’s teacher to make sure that they have the skills that they need to succeed. And they’ve spoken very clearly that they don’t see a role there for politicians in the classroom.”

Public schools were 46 percent White in Fall 2019, meaning more than half of the students they served were students of color. Yet the people making decisions on their behalf are largely White. 

“You have this dichotomy of children — basically an ecosystem of students of color — that are driven by people that don’t look like them,” said Harrison Peters, the CEO of Men of Color in Educational Leadership and former superintendent of Providence Public School District. “Teachers get really frustrated when they work really, really hard, and there are policies and laws that are implemented that don’t align with their support.”

Black parents got to see those policies and laws, as well as teacher frustration, play out over Zoom with their children. Now, according to an analysis of Learning Heroes data, they’re more concerned about their children than ever. 

Since 2019, there has been a 16 percent increase among Black parents who worry about their children being on track with academic expectations. Further, there was a 10 percent jump among Black parents worried about their children gaining the skills they need to succeed in college. Plus, Black parents are continuously more worried about their children’s happiness and well-being (10 percent increase) and bullying (11 percent increase).

During virtual learning, Peters watched his high school-aged son withdraw socially. But when it came time to send them back in-person, he was also nervous about his song being with several thousand other students.

“You want to make certain that you drop them off at school and get them back the same way you drop them off,” Peters said. “I could see a lot of parents are fearful about that.”

But, especially for marginalized students, school is a place for more than writing and arithmetic, Peters said. It’s a “safe haven” with clinicians, balanced meals, and social services. And when those are taken away, “challenges manifest and are amplified.”

Research at The Hunt Institute has shown similar results. Black parents cited school safety and student mental health and emotional well-being as major issues, said Erica Vevurka, director of K-12 at The Hunt Institute. In that survey, 71 percent of Black parents felt that school safety is a problem, and 39 percent said it was a “very big problem.” It also found that 45 percent of Black parents said the pandemic was disruptive to their children’s mental health and emotional well-being.

“It’s education, but it’s also more than education. Parents are worried across the board,” Park said. “Parents have had a really tough couple of years during the pandemic, and that shows in their concerns for their children and their children’s well-being. Everybody’s on high alert right now.”

Black Parents Are Increasingly More Involved in Children’s Education

Whether it’s from seeing constant headlines about high levels of learning loss or from the new insight virtual learning allows, Black parents are more involved in their children’s education than ever. 

Plus, after spending multiple school years at home in virtual classrooms, parents have directly seen what their children are learning, and how they’re progressing academically and emotionally. 

“From this shared experience, parents across the board are more aware and attuned to their children’s education and generally feel more empowered to advocate for their children’s needs when engaging with schools and educators,” Vevurka said.

Responses to the Learning Hero survey show 92 percent of Black parents found more time to talk to their children about their everyday assignments, and 88 percent got a better understanding of what their children are expected to learn at their grade level. 

“Since the pandemic, parents have really been leaning into their child’s education at unprecedented levels,” Park said, and survey responses indicate that level of engagement is here to stay. “So not only are parents more engaged now, they tell us that they will continue to be engaged in various ways.”

COVID brought upon “forced innovation,” Peters said, in that we’ve had to strengthen how we communicate without relying on being together physically. While he was a superintendent, telecommunication resulted in the highest level of Black parent participation in parent-teacher conferences.

“We were able to plug in right there,” Peters said. “This idea of forced innovation, this is one of the positives that came out of COVID. It really brought us together and allowed us to strengthen our communication.”

They also want to have a say in their children’s education. In terms of these actions, 40 percent of Black parents cited suggesting changes to the textbooks used as a primary means. More than half of Black parents said they want to provide feedback on how to spend COVID recovery and relief funds (55 percent) and voice their opinions about curriculum during school board meetings (54 percent). Just under half of Black parents said they would like to review daily lesson plans.

“Parents across the board really have let us know that they want to have more of a say in education,” Park said. “But when we look at the percentage of the parents who have actually done some of these things, they’re relatively small.”

Across the country, states are creating “more formal opportunities” for families to be involved in decisions, Vevurka said. But in order for these to be effective, the communication and participation platforms need to be accessible to all parents.

“Education leaders must ensure a diverse group of parents are represented when garnering input,” Vevurka said, “and to do that, they must also give parents from backgrounds underrepresented in these spaces time to rebuild trust in education systems.”

The changing parent/teacher relationship

From lower graduation rates to lagging reading levels to a shortening supply of teachers, students and educators have struggled recently. And as parents become more engaged with their children’s education, they’re also changing the way they interact with both the teachers and the school. 

The Learning Heroes report found that 87 percent of Black parents think it’s “essential” for families and teachers to work closely to overcome the pandemic’s impact on learning, and 89 percent think it’s “essential” for parents and teachers to trust each other in order to achieve this.

“One of the things that was a big takeaway for us is that parents and educators are united, not divided,” Park said. “We continue to hear this national narrative that pits parents and educators against each other, but all of our research shows something very different. We see parents and educators wanting to team up on behalf of kids.”

Parent and educator relationships are indeed changing, Vevurka said. And, as research supports, parents are a “major part” of reducing learning loss and opportunity gaps for students.

“We think that education leaders are also seeing this as a key opportunity for pandemic recovery,” Vevurka said. “Which we hope will trickle down to the classroom level as parents and teachers supporting and collaborating on student learning.”

What Park found surprising in the report was that both parents and educators agree the concept of equity is “critical to the success of every student” — a number that only rose once the report defined equity.

With parents strengthening their voices and districts doing a better job of inviting parents to the table, Peters says we’re seeing a difference.

“You’re starting to see this belief that, hey, it’s OK to treat schools differently and to treat students differently,” Peters said. “As long as you’re treating them in a way that you’re getting them what they need.”

Through COVID’s forced innovation, there has “definitely” been an increased opportunity to strengthen the parent/teacher relationship, Peters said. And as educators and districts see the “extreme value” of giving parents and students a voice, he is optimistic that it will continue.

“We’re starting to see that that’s definitely part of the secret sauce in the learning and the transformation process of our schools and upward trajectory,” Peters said.

An increase in summer learning

As part of their changing relationships with teachers, Black parents are the most likely to connect with their child’s teacher before the end of the school year to figure out the specific learning priorities for the summer months. The Learning Heroes survey found that 35 percent of Black parents do this, compared to 29 percent of all parents. 

They are also more likely to enroll their children in summer programs, with 22 percent of Black parents taking this action compared to 16 percent of all parents.

“Summer programs provide the enrichment opportunities that parents are looking for more now more than ever,” Park said.

Research shows that educators also see a difference in students enrolled in enrichment programs over the summer compared to those who aren’t.

“Especially after two really grueling years, parents want these enrichment programs to help their kids succeed and be ready for the next grade,” Park said. And it doesn’t mean tutoring or summer school programs, but “opportunities to help their child gain more of the skills and knowledge that they need to succeed in the next school year and beyond.”

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