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Est. April 5, 2002
Feb 25, 2021 - Issue 854
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After carefully following the ongoing demands for in-person education amid our unstable COVID-19 pandemic, it is becoming abundantly clear that reopening schools without taking into consideration the complex factors affecting the health and safety of teachers and students is a mistake. The continuing inequity in infection rates and the availability of vaccinations, faced by teachers and people of color, are still in crisis.

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) persists in issuing guidelines for reopening schools that are general and are not predicated on the social and economic realities of low-income students of color whose families are severely poor and earn less than $15,000 a year for a family of four (prorated for size).

These poverty-stricken students are further disadvantaged because they and their families frequently live in bubbles of inequality in terms of health care, employment, overcrowded living quarters (which have rapidly increased during the coronavirus crisis), food insecurity, access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and the ability to adhere to the CDC recommendations of masking, social distancing, ventilation, hand-washing, disinfecting facilities, and contact-tracing when COVID-19 exposures do occur.

Most unsettling is that these so-called best practices are not anchored in the daily realities and opportunities of students of color who make up the majority of today’s public school students, nor do they make the necessary accommodations for schools, teachers, and students in poor, middle-class, and upper-class neighborhoods. Instead, they are based on the assumption that all students, and their backgrounds, are basically the same.

Discussions with school nurses, teachers, administrators, counselors, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, building engineers, and other school personnel reveal that the lack of attention to the aforementioned bubble disparities places teachers, students, and other school staff at significant risk. Thus, teachers and their union leaders are repeatedly calling for teacher vaccinations before fully reopening schools.

There is significant pushback against teachers’ request for this virus prevention tool as the prevailing mantra is that it is unnecessary for teachers’ safe return to in-person instruction. The underlying health conditions of many veteran teachers, who are also living in homes with elderly parents and/or other family members with health challenges, are simply being ignored although several studies show transmissions between school staff members are most common.

Also overlooked is the fact that strict adherence to the CDC proposals is virtually impossible in dilapidated school buildings bereft of the funding required to bring them up to code. For example, the Camden City School District (CCSD) received $54.6 million from the state of New Jersey as part of the $1.2 billion federal CARES Act allocation. But CCSD Superintendent Katrina McCombs said that “… these funds will not solve our structural deficit.”

Elsewhere, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), notes that if all students come back, 30 percent more space would be required to service them. To socially distance properly, more teachers must be hired. And to maintain teachers’ health and safety, they need to be vaccinated. These requirements are summarily pushed aside.

Given these findings and realities, it would be prudent to pause the mass reopening of schools until there is a demonstrated commitment to addressing the continuing structural and economic disparities in our public schools with more than the ‘happy talk’ of promising to meet the social and psychological needs of our students by bringing them back for in-person instruction.

This adage has been repeated ad infinitum as a way to exploit the urgent needs of the most economically disadvantaged students in our public schools who serve as pawns used to secure advantages and opportunities for their more economically and socially advantaged peers whose parents, corporate, and political advocates band together to make that happen.

As a result, it is our conclusion that teachers must be vaccinated, and a plan to reconcile the rampant structural and economic discrepancies in schools attended by low-income students of color must be put in place before schools reopen en masse.

Other factors of concern are: systematic testing of those students and teachers who return to school, pegging school reopenings and closures to the ebbs and flows of community infection rates, immediate prioritization of vaccinations for teachers, and upfront funding for safely reopening schools in poor communities.

Even as vaccinations are being rolled out across the nation, the inequities remain. Despite repeated assurances that communities of color, which have been ravaged by the coronavirus, will be first in the queue, Whites continue to be at the head of the line. Native American populations are at the greatest risk for COVID-19 infections and deaths, and their reservations are virtual hotspots for community spread.

President Biden and Vice President Harris have put forth policies to tackle these issues, but their efforts are being waylaid at the state and local levels by both Democrats and Republicans. The leadership of teachers and their unions presents the best hope of safe and healthy return to in-person instruction.

Their efforts have pushed several states to move teachers to the first tier of those eligible for the vaccine and are now quietly reversing the CDC directive that teachers do not need to be vaccinated before they pursue in-person instruction. Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell and BC.

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is published  Thursday
Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
Managing Editor:
Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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