Some Asian Americans may not return to in-person classes for fears of bullying and violence

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

LAUSD is aiming to get kids and teachers back in classrooms next month. But if and when that happens, about half the students may still be missing. That’s according to early results of a parent survey the district released on Monday. It showed that many parents are reluctant to send their kids back, especially the ones living in areas hit hard by COVID.

Around the country where schools are already open, more Asian families are choosing to continue remote learning. A big reason: They fear being targets of anti-Asian harassment and violence, which have increased over the past year. These crimes have been so alarming that during President Biden’s first week in office, he signed an executive order asking the Justice Department to investigate. 

“Asian Americans are disproportionately making the decision to keep their children home,” says Moriah Balingit, Washington Post education reporter. “So in New York City, at one point, Asian American parents were more likely to keep their kids home than even Black and Latino parents who also have higher rates of keeping their children remote. … We saw that in Virginia, in Minnesota, in the Hmong community. And it's interesting too to hear about it in Los Angeles,” she says.

Reasons vary for this. Balingit says she spoke with a Chinese father in Maryland who read about coronavirus before it even arrived in the U.S. (because he turns to Chinese news sources), and perhaps had a greater fear of it. 

Some families are worried about their children possibly facing anti-Asian harassment not just in school, but on the way to school, she points out. 

“I spoke to a school principal who said a woman brought her child on the subway to school, and she was harassed on the train. And after that, she decided to keep her daughter home. She was afraid to ride the subway,” Balingit says. “A school in Chinatown in New York City is probably majority Asian in many cases. So it's less of a fear of being taunted by classmates, and more of a fear of what could happen on the way to school.” 

Many Asians live in multi-generational households, so there’s also a fear of kids possibly bringing home the virus from school. 

“In a lot of Asian American families, elderly parents are being cared for by children who might have children of their own. Sometimes you have cousins and aunts and uncles, so they would rather have the kids stay home than possibly expose an elderly person in the household to risk.” 

Many Asians work in health care, so they’ve seen this disease up close. Balingit says she spoke to a New York-based Filipino in-home nurse who was with a patient when he passed away from coronavirus. She quarantined and thus spent a month away from her son. 

“The idea of sending her son back to school … was just too terrifying to her. She doesn't want to send her son back until he can get vaccinated, as well as all the teachers and his classmates.”

She says school staff, meanwhile, face a dilemma because they want to make sure that parents can choose what feels best for them, but there’s a consensus that in-person education is superior to virtual education in almost all cases. 

Many schools are now trying to regain trust among parents. “In Philadelphia, I spoke to a woman from China who told me that her son's school has had chronic problems with things like mold. And so she just doesn't trust that they're going to do a good job at ventilating the school, for example.” 

Balingit says schools are adopting safeguards, such as cohorting, and explaining to parents how they work. 

Spreading anti-bullying messaging is key too. “I spoke to one woman who … ended up sending her daughter back to school, but her daughter was taunted … by this group of boys who chanted ‘corona’ at her. And my heart really broke for this girl. But she was really eager to go back to school. So they kept her home for a day. And they had a long talk with the principal about how to deal with this. That principal sent out a message condemning anti-Asian hate. They developed an educational program around it. And the mother was happy to send her child back after that.”

Balingit says this pandemic has exposed and highlighted how important it is for schools to communicate with parents and gain their trust. 

“It's not just safe to make the school safe. You have to also communicate how you're doing that and make kids and parents feel safe. Those are two sometimes separate and distinct missions. … The pandemic has really exposed how important it is to maintain that relationship with parents.”

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  • Moriah Balingit - Washington Post reporter covering national education issues