Parents of Black students feel less assured than their white counterparts that Arkansas schools will keep their children safe from covid-19, according to the results of a recent poll.
Parents in general believe schools are doing a good job of following safety protocols, but the feeling again is stronger among white parents than Black parents, the poll found.
And when schools test for covid-19, parents want results to be communicated more frequently and concisely, the poll shows.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette commissioned the poll, which was conducted by telephone Nov. 5-10. The survey of 605 households of public school students has an overall margin of error of plus/minus 4.15 percentage points and plus/minus 4.58 percentage points on the questions regarding safety protocols and student safety.
The poll grew out of reporting by the sister newspapers on the effects of the pandemic on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in Arkansas.
The disparities between the responses of parents of white students and those of Black students showed clearly on questions about how confident parents felt about their children's safety.
Half of the polled parents of white students say children are very safe from covid-19 when going into classrooms, the poll found.
That confidence level fell to 16% for parents of Black students, the poll shows.
Almost 88% of all parents believe in-person classes are at least somewhat safe.
Yet more than 1 in 5 parents of Black students considered going to class at least somewhat unsafe.
The confidence gap came as no surprise to Johnny Key, secretary of the state Department of Education.
"I can speak to what we are seeing in many of our predominantly African-American districts in the Delta just with the number of students who have opted for virtual learning: 40% to 50% in some cases, where those families have said, 'Look we don't feel confident coming to school, we want our kids to be at home,'" Key said. He was referring to east Arkansas' Mississippi River Delta region.
"They understand there's a disproportionate impact on minority communities with covid-19," Key said. "Data shows frequency and severity of the cases can be greater in Black communities than in white communities, but that's a reflection of so many of our other health challenges."
Black Arkansans bore the brunt of the early onset of the pandemic, state Department of Health figures show. As recently as mid-September, Black Arkansans accounted for 24% of the state's confirmed covid-19 cases while making up 15% of the state's population, those figures show.
The disease's distribution among racial and ethnic groups is evening out as the pandemic drags on and becomes more widespread, recent Health Department figures show. Black Arkansans accounted for 17% of cases as of Dec. 17, those figures show.
Other minority groups, such as Marshallese and Hispanics, were even harder hit early in the pandemic, Health Department figures show. Sample sizes of these groups within the poll, however, were too small to draw reliable conclusions.
Every parent and educator interviewed for this article agreed: All students will have catching up to do.
Black families are more wary because they are more likely to have family members at home who are at risk health-wise, said both Key and state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock. Parents worry a healthy child showing no symptoms could still take the virus home. Elliott is a longtime member of the Senate Education Committee and a retired teacher with 30 years' experience.
Jennifer Whitfield of Blytheville, an account manager who specializes in the health care business, is one of those parents. Her two school-age children have used online instruction from the beginning of the pandemic.
Whitfield remains unemployed after losing the best job she ever had when the pandemic broke out, she said. She worked in Memphis for a temporary employment service that saw its business disappear after office quarantines became widespread.
"I have acute asthma and bronchitis," said Whitfield, who is Black. "I chose virtual classes for my kids because we have to be very careful."
Whitfield said she has not replaced her emergency inhaler. The family can't afford the $90 cost not covered by insurance, she said.
She wishes Black Arkansans were more careful about covid-19.
"I don't think we take it seriously enough," she said. "I constantly see my friends and family socializing in large groups. My mother-in-law caught it, and before that her grandkids, nieces and nephews visited her all the time."
Elliott said she repeatedly hears concerns about taking covid-19 home. Health Department numbers back up those concerns, she said.
Confidence in anti-virus protocols at school falls in proportion to the risks, Elliott said. People facing greater health risks who are also more vulnerable financially are less likely to accept risks to their children or the family members those children go home to.
"It's so disappointing because it was all so predictable," she said. "It just gives more concrete evidence of the disparities that divide us every day in health care and everything else."
A dilemma too many parents face, Elliott said, is they cannot afford to keep kids at home despite their fears.
Almost 64% of the adults who responded to the poll said they are very confident the schools adequately enforce covid-19 safety protocols such as social-distancing and mask-wearing.
This confidence level again dropped sharply for parents of Black students, poll data shows.
About 69% of parents of white students said they are very confident that anti-virus protocols are fully enforced at their children's schools. That confidence level fell to less than 37% among Black respondents with school-age children.
Almost 10% of Black parents reported no confidence at all on school protocol enforcement. Another 8% said they were not too confident. This 18% compares to 7% of white parents.
The poll's finding of overall parent confidence in schools taking covid-19 protocols seriously aligns with what school administrators are told by parents statewide, said Mike Mertens, assistant executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
Applying those covid-19 standards consistently while providing an education is a major challenge, he said.
"We're getting better at it, but that's what happens when you have to keep doing it all the time," Mertens said. The unpredictability of where and whom the disease strikes is the greatest difficulty, he said.
"If you're a small school district and your custodian gets a case, you're in trouble," he said. Custodial workers are vital in normal times, he said, and even more so when there is a public health crisis.
Bus drivers are another vital link, he said. A case among them can throw a district's entire transportation plan into disarray, he said.
The biggest problem with protocol enforcement isn't with schools, said parent Christopher Barnes of Walnut Ridge. The problem is unrealistic application of rules that change too often.
"My wife is a registered nurse who has to sit in conference calls four hours a day sometimes while the CDC tells them what the latest changes to the rules are," Barnes said of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
His daughter wants to specialize in the medical field, Barnes said, and grades matter. She had an "A" slip to a high "B" when she was sent to virtual learning for two weeks.
The state hasn't issued guidelines on when or how often a school district should test students for covid-19, or on how or how often the results of such testing should be released, the Department of Education confirmed Tuesday.
The state Department of Health recommends students or staff members exhibiting symptoms be tested along with those who came in close contact with them. This is in line with CDC standards.
Almost 37% of parents polled reported their children had to pivot to online learning because of an active covid-19 case in their classes or schools, according to the poll.
This happened most often in high school. Parents of high school students reported 44% of their households had a student who pivoted because of a covid-19 case. This compared with 20% in elementary grades and 38% in middle school.
"High school students are more active. They can drive," said Leslee Wright, spokeswoman for the Bentonville School District. Younger students are easier to keep track of, have fewer group activities in and out of school and stay at home more, she said.
Bentonville has had all of its fourth graders in one elementary school pivot to online learning for two weeks, but that was the only pivoting done at the elementary level, she said. High school students have had to pivot more often -- including, in one case, a high school's entire volleyball team. Team athletes are in close proximity, breathing hard and coming in contact, she said.
Most parents polled didn't favor extensive testing for covid-19. Almost two-thirds of parents believed students should undergo testing for covid-19 only after a case is confirmed at the same school.
About 18% believed all students should be on a regular schedule for testing, while 65% wanted testing after a classmate developed symptoms or tested positive.
Once testing begins, 43% of parents wanted individual school reports on the results rather than districtwide results. Another 35% wanted more detailed information, such as whether the positive tests came from students, teachers or staff members. The poll finding is consistent with what parents in the Bentonville district want and what the district provides, Wright said.
A large majority of parents polled -- 73% -- wanted any testing results to be released at least weekly. Of the parents polled, 47% wanted weekly reports and 26% wanted results daily.
Most parents, 56%, believe in-person classes should stop if covid-19 tests prove positive for 10% of the student body, the poll shows.
A positive covid-19 test result is only the starting point for the Bentonville district in deciding whether to pivot a group of students, Wright said. Once there is a positive test, the district determines who that person has been around at school. The extent of those contacts -- not positive tests -- is the deciding factor in who needs to pivot, she said.