How Black School Leaders Build Trust With Families

Dr. Uché Blackstock is the parent of two school-aged children in New York City. A board-certified emergency physician, she worked in urgent care clinics in Brooklyn during the rise of COVID-19. Her children, now ages 5 and 7, learned remotely in the spring of 2020, but have been attending their Brooklyn school full-time, in-person, since fall 2020 because their school provided that option for children of essential workers. Dr. Blackstock is now CEO of Advancing Healthcare Equity, a company she co-founded to address racial disparities in healthcare. She spoke with EdWeek about how these disparities play out in education and how schools can build trust with parents and protect all students as masks become optional. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The way the pandemic unfolds for different families is complex. I think there is a socio-economic component. I found that the families in our school that chose hybrid over estrangement were white families or more affluent black families. More low-income black families have chosen remoteness.

It is a matter of trust in social institutions like schools or the education system. If you talk to parents in low-income black communities, I think they’ll say, “I don’t think the schools are on our side. We talk about medical mistrust or institutional mistrust. In fact, I reverse the situation and say that it is more about institutional unreliability, that these systems have proven to be untrustworthy for some communities. They must win the trust of the communities.

Some families did not believe schools would keep their children safe, as they had experience with schools. Black families and wealthier white families have had the privilege of not feeling that fear, having more confidence and saying, I feel good sending my child to school.

It’s interesting to me, because my mother grew up in poverty, 15 minutes from here in Brooklyn. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She ended up at Harvard Medical School, and my twin sister and I are second-generation doctors. We are Harvard Medical School’s first black mother-daughter heritage.

So I feel like I understand and appreciate his upbringing. She shared a lot with us about what it was like to not have. I know we need to reflect on how institutions have interacted with communities and how this has influenced parents’ decisions to send their children to school during the pandemic.

I felt confident enough to send my kids to school because the vice principal and headmistress are black women who are amazing leaders. They were very transparent about what the process was going to be to keep the kids safe. We’ve had town halls starting in the summer of 2020 that lasted about two hours on Zoom: those are the layers we’re going to put in place to make sure your kids are safe. And here is another hour when we can answer your questions. And we’re going to have another town hall, and another town hall. They were always available and accessible.

And – I think about it fondly – but I feel like they see our children as their own children. If anyone is going to take care of my babies, these women are going to make sure my babies are safe. Every parent should be able to feel that. Too bad it depends on the school management. It actually depends on who your manager or staff is who determines how well your children are protected. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.

Principals: contact the parents

We need to make sure school leaders are communicating, encouraging everyone to wear their masks at school, because there is still so much uncertainty. We don’t know when the next surge will be, and transmission levels are still high. We have to care about immunocompromised people, and we may not know who they are.

My kids’ school gave us quick tests for the kids to take before they came home from recess. I think it’s really important, to make sure that all public school children have access to it. And I would always encourage investing in ventilation and air filtration infrastructure.

The principal could also communicate with the school community saying, if you are a parent and are particularly concerned about the health of your child and what these mask rules may mean, come talk to me and we can figure out what to do. It will be individualized. There should be options for families or staff who are vulnerable.

I was shocked by [New York City] Mayor Eric Adams’ decision to lift the mask mandate in schools. There is so much variability in vaccination rates within schools, communities and neighborhoods. There are some schools where the vaccination rate is only in the 30s. And those are probably the same schools that have overcrowded classrooms, that don’t have infrastructure for ventilation or filtration of the adequate air. And we tell them they can take their masks off. I think it’s too early.

[Federal guidance on masking is shifting toward] a very individual message focused on personal responsibility. And in the most recent CDC guidelines, we see it even more: that it’s not about the collective response, but rather about what individuals do. And if you’re high risk, then you should protect yourself, but if you’re a healthy person, with a healthy immune system, then you can do whatever you want. And I honestly think that’s unacceptable. I know that’s a strong word, but the very foundation of public health is a collective response.

When you have a respiratory virus like this, we know that all of these mitigation strategies work best when everyone else is using them. So I’m horrified that these COVID protections are being lifted so quickly. First, because there is no plan for when we might reinstate them, and second, what are we going to do to protect people, especially the most vulnerable: the elderly, immunocompromised children and not vaccinated. There is no plan.

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