On Wednesday, Donald Trump declared that he was “comfortable” with the idea that his son and grandchildren would be heading back to school in a few weeks. As it happens, there are reasons why Trump might feel this is safe that go beyond his own insistence that kids don’t catch COVID-19. Barron Trump attends St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Maryland. The number of kids in his grade is approximately 40. The average number of students in a classroom is … 11.
It’s not hard to believe that St. Andrew’s—enrollment $40,650 per year—is well-positioned to take extraordinary precautions regarding COVID-19. In fact, the school’s plan for the upcoming semester includes potential distance learning and a hybrid model that reduces the number of students on campus on any given day. Trump has every reason to believe that his son can return to school safely. However, Trump’s experience is completely unlike that of the average family facing public school—families whose voices are being completely silenced in the national conversation about school safety.
The American Enterprise Institute is a conservative think tank that has reliably provided Republicans with talking points for billionaire tax cuts and cheered on Trump’s deregulation schemes. However, their impact study on how the coronavirus is affecting American families is definitely worth a look. Only 34% of white parents said they matched Donald Trump in feeling “comfortable” about sending their children back to school. Even so, that was far above the 19% of Black and Latino parents who were ready to send their kids back to classrooms. There’s a clear reason for this: The 19% value also exactly matched the number of parents with incomes below $50,000 willing to send their kids back to school. In contrast, 39% of parents with incomes over $75,000 were willing to make that call.
Why were white parents more than twice as willing to send their children back to school, and why were parents making more money more willing to make that call? It wasn’t because of the burden that the kids posed at home. The same number of parents in both groups listed problems getting their professional work done with their children in the house among the major hardships of the pandemic. The difference between white and Black parents can be explained simply enough: white students go to better schools with smaller class sizes and greater resources to deal with the pandemic.
Black and Latino parents are far more likely to be looking at returning their children to classrooms that were overcrowded and underfunded before the pandemic. And those classrooms are much more likely to be in older, poorly maintained buildings where heating and air conditioning are iffy, with budgets that were already strained to the last cent.
Like so many other aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the discussion over whether it’s appropriate to send children back to classes only serves to amplify the existing faults of the system. And one of the major faults in the education system has long been how the voices of Black, Latino, and poor parents are erased from the national discussion.
As Jen Roesch writes at Medium, politicians have been eager to paint the idea of reopening schools as something they’re doing to protect families of color. But the concerns of those families are being explicitly, and purposely, overlooked. “It turns out that families who have been put at risk by our system’s inequalities don’t want to choose between economic and educational security and their lives.” Roesch points out an Axios poll showing that 89% of Black parents believe returning their child to school represents a threat to the family’s health.
And they should be concerned. People of color are already bearing an unequal share of the impact of COVID-19. Black, Latino, and Native American people are all more likely to be ill than white people. More likely to be hospitalized. More likely to die. A large part of that is specifically because these groups make up a higher percentage of “essential workers”—those people whose work is so important that they have to stay on the job even in the midst of a national crisis. Including those who Donald Trump forced to remain at work by executive order.
Those essential tasks not only require that workers stay in conditions that make them more likely to catch COVID-19 on the job; the disparity between the vital nature of the work, and the pay received, means that they are less likely to receive good quality health care, more likely to live in crowded conditions, and more likely to face secondary health concerns that make getting COVID-19 more serious. Telling these same communities that they have to send their children back to school is literally getting them coming and going.
As Prism reporter Anoa Changa detailed on Wednesday, there is an ongoing effort from both teachers’ unions and community leaders to provide parents with a voice in reopening schools. The first guarantee being sought is also the simplest: that reopening not occur unless public health officials can assure the community that the coronavirus has been reduced to a level that allows schools to operate safely. That includes providing room for social distancing, safe transportation, protective equipment, adequate testing, and a plan for how to handle any positive test results, which includes case tracing and management. If schools are not prepared to provide all of these things, they are not prepared to open.
“We are very clear that the issue is inequity,” said Jitu Brown, national director of Journey for Justice Alliance. “That inequity existed before COVID-19, and it has been exacerbated in this moment.”
Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump can demand the reopening of schools and blithely state that they’re not concerned about the risk to their families with good justification. Small classrooms, extraordinary resources, and the flexibility to address concerns on a student-by-student basis mean that the risk of sending their children and grandchildren to school is practically nonexistent.
While the video below predates the pandemic, it perfectly illustrates how all these issues were issues before the first case of COVID-19. Wealthy white people explaining how poor people of color should educate their children is nothing new. Now this inequity just comes with a side order of death.