He thought back to the agony of isolating away from his own children for more than two weeks when he contracted coronavirus earlier this year — a luxury thousands of his city’s families don’t have because they lack child care support, job flexibility and space to quarantine.
Education leaders throughout the country are staring down the same lose-lose quandary as the new school year begins: As long as the pandemic persists, both in-person and remote learning will disproportionately harm students of color and further widen the racial achievement gap.
“There’s a cruel irony to these ‘safer at home’ orders because, for a lot of students, home isn’t a safe place,” said Nick Melvoin, who serves on the school board of the Los Angeles Unified School District, where nearly 90 percent of students are children of color and about 80 percent qualify for free or subsidized meals.
Without in-person classes, Black, Hispanic, low-income and special education students are more likely than their peers to go hungry or fall behind in school because they don’t have a computer, internet connection or enough help with schoolwork.
But the risks of the alternative — reopening schools for in-person learning — are magnified for those kids too.
In states where many schools have reopened this month, the warnings of health experts have proven correct: Kids can and will spread coronavirus in school. In Mississippi, 71 of the state’s 82 counties have reported coronavirus outbreaks this week, forcing more than 2,000 students and nearly 600 teachers into quarantine.
“Public schools in some ways are petri dishes,” said Melvoin, formerly a public school teacher. “Spitting and coughing on someone is practically part of a second-grade curriculum.”
Just as Black, Latino and Native American adults are getting sick and dying at disproportionate rates, so too are children of those races and ethnicities.
A new CDC report covering March through July of this year found that nearly 500 children have been hospitalized for coronavirus, and Black and Latino children were hospitalized at far higher rates than white children. The study said the disparity can be explained in part by higher rates of underlying health conditions like diabetes, hypertension and asthma that exacerbate the dangers of coronavirus, but also because their parents are “overrepresented in frontline (e.g., essential and direct-service) occupations with decreased opportunities for social distancing.”
The New England Journal of Medicine released two studies this summer showing stark racial disparities in cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children — a rare, but potentially lethal, reaction to coronavirus. Of 186 children across 26 states who developed the syndrome — the vast majority of whom were previously healthy — more than 30 percent were Latino and 25 percent were Black, while 19 percent were white.
Students of color are also more likely to live with an elderly relative who would be in danger should they become infected at school and bring it home.
“We don’t just worry about the likelihood of students being at serious risk of illness,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association. “We also worry that they’re going home to hug grandma.”
A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that about 6 percent of people aged 65 or older, which is about 3.3 million people, live in a household with a school-age child and that “older people of color are significantly more likely to live with a school-age child compared to their White counterparts.”
Public health experts, educators and elected officials say there are ways government could lessen the harm, including distributing more technology to help with at-home learning, giving schools money to overhaul their ventilation systems, and shutting down bars and restaurants to bring down the level of community spread.
About 51 million children are enrolled in the nation’s K-12 schools. Duke public policy professor Kenneth Dodge concludes that 8.6 million school-aged children don’t have the needed equipment at home to participate in online learning. That’s about one in six children in the United States. About four times as many low-income students will be shut out of remote education compared to students from middle-income families, he said.
“What that will do is increase the disparities in educational outcomes that are already present,” Dodge said. “They will simply grow over time unless we do something.”
City officials in Washington D.C. recently surveyed more than 13,000 families and found nearly 20 percent said they lacked high-speed internet at home, while nearly 45 percent did not have access to a tablet, laptop or other device.
Other districts are struggling to train educators and parents to not only use distance learning technology, but to personally connect with students who need it most. After schools closed in the spring, many of the most vulnerable fell through the cracks.
In Los Angeles, where remote learning will continue as the fall semester begins, a school board study concluded only 60 percent of the district’s middle school and high school students actively participated in online studies on a daily basis between March and May. Black, Latino, low-income and disabled students consistently lagged behind their peers.
In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone, about 15,000 high school students never signed up to do virtual education in the spring, noted Karla Pleitéz Howell, managing director of policy for the Advancement Project California advocacy group.
“During distance learning, we lost a lot of students in our schools,” Pleitéz Howell said. “There was no showing up on online Zoom classes. There was little or no contact with the students, teachers, other school personnel.”
Recent polls show Latino parents are worried both about virtual learning and with the health risks of their kids returning to school in person.
In a national survey from SOMOS, UnidosUS and Latino Decisions, 77 percent of Latino parents said they were concerned their children are falling behind academically. Even moreso, 85 percent said they were worried about contracting coronavirus if their kids went to school in person. Some 38 percent said they don’t have enough computers at home for everyone in the household who needs to work or go to school online.
Many schools are attempting to mitigate that harm by distributing devices and hot spots to every student, scheduling one-on-one check-ins between teachers and at-risk students, and having counselors and psychologists reach out to help children handle the added stress of learning during a pandemic.
But those efforts all depend on states and school districts finding enough money to implement them. While much of the billions of dollars in emergency aid Congress approved this year for schools has not yet been spent, local officials and national advocacy groups warn the federal contribution is still not enough to fill the holes the pandemic has gouged in school budgets, let alone cover the cost of new safety measures or improve virtual education.
More funding from Congress is now on hold, since House and Senate leaders have hit a wall in negotiations with the White House on a new aid package after weeks of deal-making talks.
“This is an overwhelming, unprecedented moment,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said. “And anybody who says that they have all the answers is not being humble enough. Because nobody has all the answers. But we have to start with safety and well-being and instruction.”
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.