At Lowell Elementary, in a well-off neighborhood just a short walk from Marine Stadium, the majority of students are preparing for their return to campus.
At the end of this month, about 74% of Lowell’s 534 pupils will once again learn face-to-face with their teachers and peers now that their parents opted to enroll them in the Long Beach Unified School District’s “hybrid” learning option, which splits the school day between on-campus classes and at-home learning.
Lowell is the LBUSD elementary school with the highest percentage of students signed up to return to class—an option many parents have lobbied for as failing grades spiked during the pandemic, a phenomenon that statewide research shows has been especially prevalent in poorer communities.
But Lowell is also unique in another way—it’s the LBUSD elementary school with the slimmest rate of low-income students, according to district data. Only 15% fall in the “low socioeconomic status” category, a definition that includes students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, whose families fall below a certain income threshold or whose parents have less than a high-school education.
At 56%, Lowell is also the LBUSD elementary school with the highest concentration of White students.
Three miles away in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, the numbers are essentially reversed.
There, at Lincoln Elementary—where 88% of students come from low-income families, and 98% are non-White—only 24% are returning to class.
The vast majority of Lincoln students will keep learning exclusively at home, missing out on the chance to get face-to-face guidance from a teacher or see their classmates apart from Zoom.
Lowell and Lincoln are at the extreme ends of the spectrum, but they’re not outliers, according to LBUSD data analyzed by the Long Beach Post.
Overall, Long Beach elementary schools with a higher percentage of low-income students and a higher percentage of non-White students have fewer kids returning to in-person education—something district officials say is likely an outgrowth of existing inequities.
So far, this trend applies only to elementary schools, which will resume in-person education on March 29. Middle- and high-schoolers are expected to return in April, but data isn’t yet available on how many families will take the district up on that option.
Even as schools prepare to get back to some semblance of normalcy, the LBUSD data makes it clear inequities will persist in disadvantaged communities of color that were already disproportionately ravaged by COVID-19.
For instance, at Roosevelt Elementary across the street from Poly High, 695 out of 992 kids will keep learning exclusively from home. Conversely, at Naples Elementary—on Long Beach’s expensive island enclave—all but 88 of the 315 students will return to class.
More broadly, in school board districts 4 and 5—covering the more affluent areas of Belmont Shore and East Long Beach—upwards of 55% of families chose for their students to return to school in-person. In districts 1, 2, and 3—representing Downtown, Central Long Beach, West Long Beach and North Long Beach—those numbers fall dramatically, with only 35.7% to 40.5% of parents wanting their students to return in-person.
When the LBUSD surveyed parents on whether they wanted to send their students back to elementary school, they did not ask the reason for their decision, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about what exactly drove their choice.
But people within the district have agreed that safety and child-care concerns are factors.
School board member Juan Benitez, who represents Downtown Long Beach in District 3, has said throughout the last several months that he’s largely heard from his constituents that they’re not ready to return to campuses yet after their communities were besieged by the pandemic.
“For all the challenges they’re facing, the frustrations that they’ve expressed with remote learning, not one of the parents I’ve spoken to, not one of them has said they feel safe returning to school,” Benitez said at a school board meeting in December when COVID-19 cases were surging. “I think it’s important to highlight that.“
The numbers may explain that fear. It’s more likely for Benitez’s constituents to have had a personal experience with COVID-19, according to city data.
His district covers portions of Long Beach that have been hit hard with coronavirus cases, including parts of the 90813 ZIP code, where Lincoln Elementary is located. With 7,753 infections, the case rate in 90813 is more than double that of 90803, where Lowell Elementary sits.
The unevenly high case rate is also true in North Long Beach’s 90805 ZIP code, an area covered by Board of Education District 1, where only 40.5% of students are returning to class.
“COVID-19 has disproportionately affected higher need populations nationally and in Long Beach,” LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou said. “Families who have been most affected by the pandemic may be more reluctant to send their children into group settings. Other logistical factors may come into play in terms of scheduling and convenience, considering that students will at first be attending only during a portion of the school day.”
Under the district’s hybrid learning plan, the school day for elementary students will feature only two and a half hours of in-person instruction. This allows a class that’s now split with some students at home and some in class to remain together with the same teacher they’ve had all year, but it will also require parents who opted for in-person teaching to drop off and pick up on either end of the two-and-a-half-hour window.
That may be doable for a parent working at home, but it is clearly less manageable for grocery clerks, food-service employees and many people in other lower-wage essential jobs who have still had to keep showing up to work during the pandemic.
“For most folks, sending a child to school for two and a half hours during a work day was never actually an option,” Mariela Salgado, an LBUSD parent, said at a March 3 Board of Education meeting.
At that meeting, Benitez said he was concerned about the psychological effect on students who are forced to stay home even as their classmates return to campus, especially given that they are more likely to be students with fewer resources.
“Some of our most vulnerable students, through no fault of their own, will not have the opportunity to return,” he said. “That may heighten the feeling of isolation for those still at home … In-person is obviously the preference, but I don’t want folks to feel bad that they chose the virtual option. Every household, every situation is different.”
The district thinks more students will eventually end up back in the classroom as vaccines become more widespread, Eftychiou said, but in the meantime, “We are continuing to focus on the quality of distance learning and a wide range of support services for families who choose that option.”
Editor’s note: Mariela Salgado is a member of the Long Beach Post’s Community Editorial Board, which writes editorials and opinion pieces. They do not have any control over news coverage. This story has also been updated to correct the number of Benitez’s district.