Sylvia Jefferson, 30, shares the same hopes most parents have at the start of a new school year — she wants her two young children to blossom and excel in their studies. But, she has fears that most Iowa parents don’t have.
“Being an African American mother with an African American son, it’s very scary,” she said. “I want them to have a positive school year. I want them to be able to, again, be kids and not have any issues.”
She still remembers what it felt like last year when she learned another child had called her son the N-word, and she doesn’t want her son to experience that again.
When Dewayne, 9 and daughter, Kendall, 7, return to Des Moines’ Monroe Elementary School today, Jefferson’s hopes and fears will, too. She wants her smart and energetic son who “wears his heart on his sleeve,” to thrive academically and push through the “stigma of being a Black child in the time that we’re in right now dealing with racism.” She wants Kendall, who is opinionated, outgoing and caring to blossom academically and “to know her beauty as a Black girl” and tap into her “Black girl magic,” she said.
Last June, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law limiting the teaching of critical race theory, without specifically calling it that, in K-12 schools, colleges and government diversity trainings. Jefferson said racism is a problem in Iowa and she worries a lot about how an anti-Black sentiment in the state will affect how her son is perceived as he grows up.
"I don't want my child to be the next victim so where I'm getting that phone call and I'm being told that he was gunned down and all he was doing was walking while Black," she said.
The pandemic has taken a toll on Jefferson who said she has struggled financially. She is working to start her own businesses because she needs work hours that will fit with her family obligations and community work. She's worried about how she would afford the internet services her children need to complete their school work.
The Des Moines school district has about 32,000 students, of which 20% are Black. Some students will return in person to classrooms in the state’s largest school district, while others remain at home for online learning. It’s the new normal amid a surge of the delta variant, where all 99 of Iowa’s counties are experiencing high and substantial spread of the virus.
According to the New York Times database, Iowa’s COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths have ticked upward. Just 51% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, white Iowans have been vaccinated at twice the rate of Blacks, 49% to 25%, respectively.
Even so, Jefferson knows her children really want to attend in-person classes, and she believes they'll be safe there.
Dewayne, who donned a white T-shirt and high-top Air Force Ones for his back-to-school attire, likes math and basketball. He’s happy to go to school in person.
“I get to see my friends again,” he said.
His sister agreed.
“I get to see my teachers and friends,” she said.
“I’m a little worried. I'm a little scared, but I just know that God’s got us,” she said.
Jefferson commended the way Des Moines Public Schools has handled the pandemic. She blames Reynolds for preventing schools from being able to mandate face masks.
“I think it's very selfish of Governor Reynolds,” she said. “I think it’s careless. I think it’s selfish that they’re not pushing a mask mandate.”
Jefferson said she has taught her children why they must wear their masks and she reminds them there are consequences if they don’t. Her daughter wasn’t a problem, but her son sometimes wears his mask beneath his nose, she said.
“He’s the one we struggle with. Going to the store, he struggles with keeping it on there,” she said. “I’ve explained to them time and time again: This is for your safety.”
She wishes that was the case inside her children’s school.