Shurrin Zeng has a tough choice ahead of her. She wants her daughter to take classes in person again, replacing computer screens with face-to-face interaction and recess in the sun.
But when she checks the news, it presents a grim picture. Her daughter’s grandparents usually take her to Marina Middle School, and Zeng is worried about them being attacked on the basis of their race. Leaving her 14-year-old daughter at the bus station alone also isn’t a good option: What if something happens to her on the street?
“I am very concerned about my kid’s education, but I’m more concerned about her health and safety,” Zeng said. “It’s a very sad situation that we’re facing.”
On the eve of some public school classrooms reopening, many Asian American and Pacific Islander families are worried about whether they can safely send their kids back to school. In early January, a school district survey found that only 36 percent of Asian families planned to attend in-person school, compared to 62 percent of Latino families, 62 percent of Black families and 81 percent of white families.
The lower numbers among Asian families can be attributed to fears of violence and Covid-19, along with distrust of the school district, according to community organizers.
“You can vaccinate for Covid-19, but what can you do to inoculate Asian Americans against the spread of hate, the pandemic within the pandemic?” asked Lamar Heystek, the president of ASIAN, Inc., a culturally-aligned nonprofit that develops economic opportunities, and a parent of two children in public school. “For many in our community, the virus of hate has become more of an issue than Covid-19.”
Given the current environment, he said even the three-block walk to school is something he would not let his children undergo.
Six people interviewed — representing parents, teachers and community organizers — said they have two degrees of separation or less from someone who has been the victim of anti-Asian violence.
Recent news coverage offers no shortage of disturbing incidents: Vicha Ratanapakdee, 84, who was killed in the quiet Anza Vista neighborhood after being shoved to the ground; Danny Yu Chang, 59, nearly blinded in the Financial District when returning from buying lunch; Xiao Zhen Xie, 75, who fought off her attacker on Market Street.
Stop AAPI Hate logged about 3,800 hate incidents against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders nationwide over the last year, as of mid-March, 2021. According to additional data the organization reported at the start of February, 292 hate incidents have taken place in San Francisco since the start of the pandemic. These numbers are also likely an undercount, Stop AAPI Hate says.
For many, in-person education is not worth the risk of violence. Chi Mak, who leads the Asian Parents Group at Marina Middle School, described fears parents have that grandparents bringing their children to school will be hurt or that their children will be the target of racist actions if they return to school.
He estimates over 70 percent of the families at Marina Middle School and Thurgood Marshall in the Bayview don’t feel safe to send their kids back to school, a figure based on conversations with parents at both schools.
“Even where the grandparents are willing to take the risk [of walking children to school] because they care about their grandchild and their grandchild’s education, my students’ parents won’t allow their parents to take that risk,” he said.
Among Asian families, hesitance about returning to in-person learning is not new, based on the January data from the school district, though the anti-Asian violence compounds existing concerns and is the final straw for some families.
Cyn Wang, a single mother who works with Decreasing The Distance and Asian-focused community organizations, said some Asian families feel at greater risk of catching Covid: Many live in multigenerational households, are frontline workers and are subject to misinformation on platforms like WeChat.
There’s been a lack of outreach and information provided to Asian families on platforms and in languages they use, Wang said, and in its wake misinformation about the risks of reopening is flourishing. Public health officials have repeatedly affirmed that reopening schools can be done safely with basic precautions like masking and social distancing. Some students would even be safer at school than at home.
“Our parents need to feel like they’re included in the process — they need to feel like their opinions are valued and that information gets out to those who don’t have as much access,” Wang said.
According to Seeyew Mo, the executive director of Families for San Francisco, there’s also hurt in Asian communities over school board decisions, such as school renaming and the fast-tracked move to strip Lowell of its merit-based admissions process. Many Asian families did not feel like they were heard during those decisions, he said.
That distrust has only been exacerbated in recent days by Board Vice President Alison Collins’ tweets, which among other incendiary statements, used the term “house n****r” to describe Asians, and played into harmful stereotypes about the community.
“There’s a historical lack of engagement, and hence, lack of trust,” Mo said. “Unless families know that the district can protect their kids and hear what they have to say, I’m not surprised parents are making the decision to not go back.”
(Mo’s children are too young for public school, but his family is considering not having the children’s grandparents take them to preschool.)
Interviewees proposed a variety of targeted remedies — information campaigns to combat disinformation, community safety patrols for the violence, outreach sessions with the Board of Education, etc. — but there’s no magic bullet for the hurt and hate.
“We all just want peaceful lives — we are not the enemy, and people don’t see that,” Zeng said.