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Brenes & Buik: As students return to classrooms in LA, the voices of BIPOC families — too often absent from the reopening debate — must be heard

Maria Brenes and Elise Buik | April 27, 2021



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As the pandemic began last March, Reyna Frias of East Los Angeles didn’t have a laptop or internet connection for her middle and high school sons to participate in distance learning. Before long, both Reyna and her husband lost their jobs. Eventually, late last year, the whole family contracted COVID-19.

It’s no surprise that Reyna’s family and many like them will not send their kids back to in-person school this year.

Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) families in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have borne the brunt of the health and economic trauma brought on by the pandemic, but their voices have been largely absent from the larger conversation about the school reopening process. At the same time, the voices of families in more affluent, proportionally whiter communities, whose pandemic experience has been marked primarily by restlessness and inconvenience, have been among the loudest advocating for a quick return to in-person learning in school board meetings and related media reports.

These vastly different impacts of the pandemic bring to mind the Tale of Two Cities report that United Way of Greater Los Angeles issued more than two decades ago. They show us that the challenges of low-income students during the pandemic are not new, and, sadly, that very little has changed.

Established in 2013, Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) is a collaborative of parent, student, educator, community-based and civil rights organizations dedicated to ensuring that historically underserved students receive an equitable education through advocacy and community engagement. It speaks for hundreds of thousands of BIPOC school families. CLASS helped pass LAUSD the Close the Gap Resolution in 2018, raising the same concerns about equity that we are facing today but now exacerbated due to the pandemic and at a greater scale.

In an open letter to LAUSD, the CLASS Coalition proposes two key strategies to meaningfully address the existing gaps in equity. First, ensure that diverse voices — especially those from underserved communities — are central in district and school discussions. Second, equitably allocate resources throughout the reopening process.

The interests of our most vulnerable students should be at the forefront of decisions as we return to in-person learning. Reyna told InnerCity Struggle that she could not attend school town halls because sessions were in English only, failing to provide interpreters. This made Reyna feel left out of the process and unsure of what reopening plans held.

Reyna and thousands of similar families at underserved schools need accessible forums for meaningful parent feedback that solicit their input for learning recovery plans. Students have also been unacceptably left out of distance learning conversations to shape the return to school. It’s time we center these voices in the decision making process.

As administrators allocate resources for reopening, they have at their disposal a valuable tool to ensure equity in budgeting: the Student Equity Need Index (SENI). If we allocate new state and federal funding according to the SENI, we can begin to offset long standing inequities by investing in the highest-need schools.

Resources for social-emotional learning support must be grounded in equity as well, giving teachers and staff what they need to help students and families recover from the trauma of the pandemic. The schools who serve our most vulnerable families must have the staff they need to care for them. The district can help recruit staff members by providing resources and flexibility to high-need schools to ensure critical positions are filled.

The pandemic has put LAUSD leaders, school staff and teachers in an unenviable position. They have worked incredibly hard over the last year and made a lot of progress while navigating a reopening process in an unprecedented time, under the pressure of the loudest, most privileged voices. But we cannot let these voices drown out the complex needs of BIPOC school families who, on top of longstanding educational inequities, are reeling from waves of death in their families and communities.

The biggest priority of the CLASS Coalition is to ensure that education is more equitable for years to come. As we reset, let’s make sure that the school years ahead of us align our priorities with the needs of our most vulnerable families and meaningfully bring them into the conversations where decisions are made.

The old “normal” did not support our youth. A new system can care for BIPOC students and prepare them for lives of leadership and success.

Reyna worries about her boys staying on track with their education after a year of distance learning. Despite her family’s struggles, she told InnerCity Struggle she was grateful for the time to grow closer with her family and to connect with community organizations over the past year. Families like hers have shown untold resilience and grace as they navigate the challenges of the past year. Let’s learn from them by listening to the lessons of their experience, and meet them with the resources they need to thrive. The CLASS Coalition will continue to fight for families like Reyna’s.

Maria Brenes is the Executive Director of InnerCity Struggle. Elise Buik is President and CEO of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. Established in 2013, Communities for Los Angeles Student Success (CLASS) is a collaborative of parent, student, educator, community-based and civil rights organizations dedicated to ensuring that historically underserved students receive an equitable education through advocacy and community engagement.

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