One of the major questions still in the air as we approach the fall season is the reopening of schools.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has made it clear that they believe children need to have in-person learning (safely of course). This is because school plays a critical role in childrens’ social and emotional development. In-person learning teaches children how to more easily develop and maintain friendships, how to behave in groups, and how to interact and form relationships with people outside of their family. Extended closures can be harmful to children’s mental health and can increase the likelihood that children engage in unhealthy behaviors. And, without in-person schooling, children lose access to resources such as school counselors, speech therapy, meals, and physical activity. Due to all of these reasons, it’s understandable why educated health officials are urging for schools to go back.
But, there are so many factors that need to be considered when reopening schools. In fact, there cannot be a set consensus on how all schools should go back in the fall. This is because schools in lower-income communities have fewer resources that would limit the safety of returning to school.
For decades before the pandemic, low-income schools have faced health challenges. Typically, these schools are in old buildings where air quality and asbestos are bigger problems than in wealthy, private schools. The National Center for Education estimates that 19% of schools nationwide face “unsatisfactory ventilation.” The schools facing these problems are mainly attended by low-income students of color; 50% of students at these schools are of color, and 70% are classified as poor.
Bringing these schools up to adequate health standards would cost the U.S. government $145 billion annually, according to the National Council on School Facilities. This compares to $99 billion average yearly spending on K-12 facilities – leaving an annual funding gap of $46 billion between high-income and low-income schools.
Even if these students were to return to low-income schools this fall, if they don’t even have the funding to pay for adequate buildings and ventilation, how are they supposed to pay for the extensive amount of cleaning supplies that will be required to maintain a virus-free environment? This is a concern that many doctors, including Dr. Mike Varshavski and Dr. David Epstein face (their video expressing these concerns is linked here). Also, these low-income public schools contain far more students than a wealthy private school may have, making social distancing much more difficult.
Lastly, if a low-income student at one of these schools were to get the virus and bring it back home to their family, the effects would be detrimental. Throughout the pandemic we have seen how low-income communities, especially those of color, have been disproportionately affected by the virus. When we interviewed Health Need Rx, an organization based in Detroit about an example of this healthcare disparity in their location, they responded, “Communities that have been hit hardest by the virus are minority and low income households. One of the main statistics that highlights this is that 40% of all coronavirus deaths in Michigan are African American, while they only make up about 14% of the population.”
Due to living in poverty and facing food insecurity, many of these people suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure etc.--all things that have been known to worsen the effects of coronavirus on patients. And, due to living in poverty, many cannot pay for necessary medications or healthcare.
A solution could be to do distance-learning online, however people living in low-income communities may not have the necessary resources such as a computer, WiFi, or a quiet workspace that they need to succeed.
All of these factors are concerns when reopening schools, particularly in the United States. Although the reopening of schools may be easier for wealthier private schools, the solution isn’t so simple for low-income schools.
Instead of trying so hard to go back during August, maybe it would be better for schools to wait a couple months longer, re-evaluate, re-assess the break schedules, and proceed from there. It would also be neat to see a more creative response. For example, for students that may not have Wi-Fi, schools can pay for vans with hotspot signals to park in certain communities and students can have free access.
But, we cannot have a “one-size fits all” solution when discussing this matter, as every school and every community faces unique challenges that need to be considered when reopening schools.