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Black Families & COVID-19

POSTED: July 20, 2020, 7:00 am

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As the nation grapples with the challenge of re-opening public schools, with little appropriate guidance from the White House, preexisting inequity threatens to exacerbate the COVID-19 crisis among Black families. It is now clear, beyond any doubt, that Black Americans are disproportionately vulnerable to infection from the coronavirus. This fact alone requires school districts and individual schools with large Black student populations to move cautiously with the reopening of schools.

Black families in particular are going to be susceptible to COVID-19 if children return to school in the fall for in-person instruction. Many Black children have intimate contact with 3rd generation relatives, as grandparents or older relatives are often in the home and serve as the primary guardian or provide childcare. By bringing these children back into the classroom, school districts must be aware of how older Black adults might be exposed to COVID-19 through their children. If parents and older relatives become ill and hospitalized due to COVID-19, what happens to Black children? Are school districts prepared for that distinct possibility?

School districts need to assess the adult composition of Black households to determine what families might be vulnerable if children receive in-school instruction in the fall. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), non-Hispanic Black persons have an infection rate 5 times that of non-Hispanic White persons. In all 21 counties in New Jersey, Black people have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. COVID-19 has compounded pre-existing health care conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension among Blacks. Since we are well aware of disparities in access to primary care, school districts might have to bear the responsibility of COVID-19 testing and monitoring of vulnerable families. COVID-19 opens up a Pandora’s Box of illness for Black families. Should a child test positive for COVID-19, what support will be given to that child’s family aside from quarantining the child? Black families stand in the crosshairs of COVID-19 and knowing this, it would be wholly irresponsible for school districts not to have a contingency plan that addresses this dilemma.

There is no doubt that concerns over ‘learning loss’ among Black children is real and valid. Given a widely acknowledged achievement gap, the loss of classroom instruction time weighs heavily upon Black children. Unfortunately, equity gaps were revealed in the transition to remote instruction as many Black households lacked Internet access and children did not have appropriate devices. To make matters worse, many Black families lack appropriate study space for children in the home and parents, many of them essential workers, did not have the luxury of providing hands-on support to children who were forced to stay home. These conditions left Black children further behind.

COVID-19 has revealed the significant divide in educational opportunity in America. For decades, these disparities widely known to researchers and educators, remained hidden from public view. They have now been brought out in the open. Black children had been left behind under the old ‘normal’ order and they now face even greater abandonment as a result of COVID-19. This is why school districts must be intentional in acknowledging the impact of race during this pandemic and have a strategy to level the playing field for Black children. Past practices were insufficient, and the future is looking murky if we return to public schools with blinders on.

Most importantly, Black parents and families must be part of the deliberations on schools’ re-opening. School districts have to stop talking to Black families and instead make them an integral part of the planning process. We cannot expect better educational outcomes for Black children if we keep their parents and guardians at a distance. For too long Black families have been treated as a nuisance by public school districts, preferred to remain in the background and simply police the behavior of their children. It is only when Black families are viewed as essential vehicles for Black student success will we see a change in the academic performance and outcomes for Black children. COVID-19 provides us the opportunity to embark upon a much different path.

Walter Fields is the Executive Editor of

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