'Trust is an underlying issue' for families of color sending kids back to school: Baltimore City Public Schools CEO

Baltimore city schools have begun to welcome children back to the classroom as COVID-19 restrictions loosen, but the pandemic may have left some families wary of in-person instruction after months of remote learning.

That could be especially true for families of color, who have seen a disproportionately high number of both COVID-19 cases and deaths from the illness compared to whites. A rare but life-threatening complication of COVID-19 known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) is also more common in Black and Latino kids.

"We knew that we had to have a special targeted, slow and steady approach, particularly for our families of color, because trust is an underlying issue — and we saw that across the country," Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, told Yahoo Finance Live on Tuesday. "It was true in Baltimore. I think our slow and steady approach has actually narrowed some of those gaps for us."

The gap she's referring is the reluctance of some Black and Latino parents to send their kids back to school amid the pandemic compared to white families. The Chicago Tribune reported in late January that white families in that city's school system were choosing in-person over remote learning at the highest rates. And in December, The New York Times reported that 12,000 more white children had returned to school than Black children.

'Very deliberate messaging'

The issue of trust among Black families could be particularly important in Baltimore's school system, where over 76% of the students are Black. Speaking to Yahoo Finance on Tuesday, Santelises emphasized the safety measures the school is taking, including the use of air purifiers, regular testing, masks, and social distancing.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises speaks to Yahoo Finance.
Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises speaks to Yahoo Finance.

So far, Baltimore has been relatively successful at earning the trust of Black and Hispanic families, according to Santelises. Of the 25% of kids in the system who are returning to in-person classes, Santelises said Latino children are overrepresented relative to their population. While Baltimore still sees a 10% gap with the number of Black kids returning for in-person instruction, Santelises says the gap is smaller than in other U.S. school districts that see a 20% or 30% gap.


"I think a lot of that has to do with the very deliberate messaging we've been saying to parents and families. We know you need to see first. So we have expanded the amount of time that families can opt-in [to returning in-person]," the Baltimore City Schools CEO said, noting that the school system has been doing both virtual and socially distant in-person open houses.

She noted that families of color have good reason not to trust public schools or public health institutions, calling to mind decades of racial segregation in schools and discrimination in health care. To make up for that lack of trust, Baltimore City Schools has gone beyond what's required of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — doing early work on both ventilation testing and vaccinating teachers, she said.

"We have to go the extra mile," she said.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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