While COVID-19 has been an inconvenience for some, as noted by a Yale University epidemiologist, it has been more of a genocide by default for others. Children who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) account for 78% of all child deaths due to COVID-19 but only represent 41 percent of the U.S. child population, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As reported in the New York Times, BIPOC children are also infected at higher rates than white children, hospitalized at rates five to eight times that of white children, and make up the overwhelming majority of those who develop multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, a life-threatening condition where body parts become inflamed. A CDC study of 570 children with MIS-C found that of those with known race, 13 percent were white; 40 percent were Hispanic, and 33 percent were Black. The U.S. currently leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, with the CDC predicting upward of 500,000 excess U.S. lives lost for 2020, and a University of Southern California study reports COVID-19 caused the largest single-year drop in life expectancy in at least 40 years, with the greatest drop for Hispanic and Black Americans. Though it was just slightly over a year ago that Donald J. Trump assured America that he had COVID-19 under control, these grave statistics continue to worsen.
President Joe Biden, with only one day into office, released a report and executive order which calls for a majority of K-8 schools to safely open in 100 days. In Michigan, an even more ambitious goal was set to have all school districts offer an in-person learning option for students as soon as possible, and no later than March 1. In November 2020, the state’s health department put a pause on in-person learning for high schoolers and in-place dining. The state saw an over 70 percent drop in COVID-19 cases and no doubt saved lives. But with months of children being at home and businesses being shuttered, parents are growing weary and anxious for their children to return to in-person learning. Business owners eager to open will need employees with children to be able to return back to work, and thus their children back in school buildings.
When decision makers began pressuring schools to reopen last fall, it was Michigan’s teachers and parents — seeking to protect their students, their families, their communities, and themselves — that saved lives by protesting the premature return to in-person learning. With the urging of state board of education members and Healthy Schools Network, Michigan education, health, and environmental officials began consulting with heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) engineers. Also, funding has been allocated and plans are underway to assist schools to address their ventilation systems. This move is supported by a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, which estimates that 36,000 schools nationwide need to update or replace HVAC systems. Reports dating back to 2014 by the American Society of Civil Engineers and National Center for Education Statistics speak to the neglect and dire conditions of public-school buildings, especially for BIPOC children.
Black children, in particular, are more likely to attend high-poverty schools where a lack of resources led to school buildings with inadequate ventilation, inoperable or no windows, an inability to address water systems that have now gone without use for months, and limited maintenance personnel. Strategies to address building infrastructure and ventilation, such as Michigan’s, are commendable. However, there will need to be sufficient and long-term funding and enough time to adequately identify and address urgent school infrastructure and HVAC needs. As we’ve learned in Michigan in recovery and response to the Flint water crisis, funding can’t be just enough for a Band-Aid fix, and resources must extend beyond the crisis itself. These issues are rooted in systems of racism that go far beyond the start of this pandemic. Just in May of 2020, a settlement was made to seven Detroit students who sued the state in a monumental case, citing building conditions and ventilation problems, among other things, as factors preventing them the right to access to literacy.
Support for a return to in-person learning is gaining traction from the medical community, and a CDC study is now being used to deem school buildings safe for return. However, the report simply tells a story that we have long known. School environments of predominantly white children and with low poverty rates have more protective learning environments. But even that conclusion comes with limitations. First, the study was conducted between September to November 29, 2020 while more than 60% of child COVID-19 cases were contracted after mid-November, post the presidential election. This study was conducted in rural school districts where 92% of the children are non-Hispanic white, 1% Black, and 3.2% Hispanic/Latino. The median income is $55,000 and 10 percent of the population meets poverty-level. Like most studies being used to argue in support of in-person learning, school ventilation systems were not considered, and this study was unable to rule out asymptomatic transmission. Though a high percentage of children who contract the virus remain asymptomatic, meaning they never show symptoms or become sick, asymptomatic children may pass the virus without knowing until an adult parent, grandparent, or other person the child comes in contact with shows symptoms or tests positive for the disease. This can be most prevalent in communities where COVID-19 is widespread and testing and contact tracing is lacking. Additionally, due to school closures, transmission of the virus which causes COVID-19 among children may have been reduced and data skewed especially for BIPOC children. An analysis by the Associated Press and Chalkbeat shows that students of color are three times less likely to be enrolled in in-person learning than districts attended by a majority of white students.
Before our children and teachers go back into the classroom, decision makers on all levels must acknowledge that COVID-19 is real and, with urgency, be responsive to the disparate impacts for BIPOC communities. There must be acknowledgement and understanding that schools are populated by children, teachers, and staff who live within households and communities and the three environments cannot be disentangled or examined singly. States cannot continue to have as its go-to “solution” opening schools and the economy as COVID-19 rates go down and then closing them back when death rates explode, hospital systems are overloaded, or too many teachers are indisposed. From the local to the federal level, health systems need to be more in tune with immunization-eligible BIPOC who are less apprehensive about getting the vaccine than they are struggling to get access to it, at a time when there’s a race against the spread of more transmissible virus mutations. There needs to be a better handle on contact tracing, especially in hardest hit communities where the virus is widespread and asymptomatic children are spreading the disease. There needs to be more testing of school children to get a more accurate account of child data.
States cannot continue to have as its go-to “solution” opening schools and the economy as COVID-19 rates go down and then closing them back when death rates explode, hospital systems are overloaded, or too many teachers are indisposed.
President Biden addresses almost all of these stipulations in his recent executive orders and national strategy for COVID-19 response and pandemic preparedness. Admittedly, the plan has a breadth that is promising and depth that is expanding as the complexities of the disease unfold and greater insight is gained on the mishandling of its control by the former administration. However, the plan falls short in that it relies on the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (USDOE) to spearhead further developing COVID-19 response strategies related to schools, possibly sidestepping the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration’s (EPA) 25-plus years expertise on school facilities. An easy fix is to ensure HHS, or CDC, and USDOE consults with the U.S. EPA as well as HVAC and building and safety experts, bring on staff with necessary expertise, and institute programming in this area.
As this relates to the millions of school children and teachers across this country at the frontlines of the push to normalcy, there is absolutely no doubt that there are necessary and urgent reasons for returning to in-person learning. However, there too are risks that could most adversely affect the populations already hard hit by COVID-19. Moreover, America’s war with COVID-19 comes at a time when she is at a war with herself. And while both wars were fueled by a former U.S. President, the impact of his willful negligence and incompetence will be felt far beyond his presidency. The cast of officials who supported or tolerated his sinister and destructive actions yet have influence over America’s fate and the plan’s success. Many have yet to acknowledge COVID-19 as more than a hoax. Most important, it’s time for America to let go of her longing to go back to a normalcy that supports injustice continuing to go unchecked, a normalcy that requires cutting costs and corners while making profits at the expense of the lives of our BIPOC brothers and sisters. America’s existence, a life after the pandemic, the success of the Biden plan, and children simply returning to school buildings, all depends on whether her people will finally answer the urgent call to uproot the systems that continue to bare the bitter fruits of racial inequities.
Dr. Pamela Pugh serves as the Vice President of the Michigan State Board of Education. She holds a Doctor of Public Health and Master of Science from the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Florida A&M University. Dr. Pugh has been recognized nationally by the NAACP’s as a two-time recipient of Dr. Montague Cobb Award for special achievement in social justice, health justice, health education and promotion, fund-raising, and research. She served as the Chief Public Health Advisor for the City of Flint from October 2016 to November 2019.
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