How Families of Color Can Better Prepare for Schools Reopening

The decision for children to attend school remotely or face-to-face is a double-edged sword for many families, especially families of color. But there are steps that caregivers can take to help protect their children and others from Covid-19 during back-to-school.

Just over six months after the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the U.S., we’re still feeling the seemingly relentless effects that the pandemic has had on the lives of millions of Americans. One of the more controversial issues related to the pandemic has been the closure and the current re-opening of schools.

Some schools across the country have returned to in-person instruction or are in the process of doing so. With the number of coronavirus cases increasing among children and some colleges and universities having to close after re-opening due to outbreaks in August, some parents, students, and teachers are concerned about rushing back to a traditional K-12 learning environment.

This is especially true for more at-risk and venerable populations such as the Black community, who have experienced disproportionate rates of not only diagnoses but also fatalities due to the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Of course, this is not a one-sided issue. In July 2020, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a study that illustrates the complexity of this topic especially for Black families and for families of color overall. While re-opening schools and sending Black students back into traditional face-to-face learning environments invites the possibility of increasing the number of cases and fatalities in the Black community, keeping schools online might create additional hardships for those Black families who depend on their school district’s resources for meals and childcare.

There is also the potential for significant academic and socio-emotional developmental consequences for Black children if schools continue with primarily remote instruction.

young boy holding his father's hand while walking to school with backpack and face maskCourtney Hale/Getty Images

Covid-19 and the Black community

As of early September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported just over six million confirmed cases of the coronavirusof which almost 290,000 were confirmed in the last seven days and over 180,000 deaths have been reported since the first confirmed case.

For months, there has been an ongoing discussion about the ravenous impact that the virus has had on the Black and Latinx communitiesdisproportionately impacting them compared to whites. Currently, confirmed cases of the virus in the Black community are almost about 2.6 times higher than whites.

Similarly, hospitalizations are almost five times higher and fatalities are two times higher than whites. Members from the Latinx community are experiencing even more extreme disparities. It has been well documented that individuals with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and obesity are at risk of experiencing more severe symptoms and are at an increased risk of succumbing to the virus.

Sadly, Blacks routinely experience higher prevalence rates of heart disease, asthma, obesity, and diabetes which makes them especially venerable. A study published in April by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that being unemployed and uninsured also plays a role in making some Blacks and Latinos more at-risk.

In the U.S., 22 percent of Blacks are living at or below poverty compared to 9 percent of whites, 16 percent are unemployed compared to 12 percent of whites, and 11 percent are uninsured compared to 8 percent of whites.

For those who are insured, the quality of care that they receive might be impacted by racially biased health care, according to a study published in 2017 in Social Science & Medicine. Additionally, distrust that some members of the Black community feel toward the healthcare system due to historically racist and racially biased practices in healthcare such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, have contributed to some Blacks being more hesitant to seek medical treatment and can increase the likelihood of them not seeking medical care if experiencing Covid-19 symptoms.

Covid-19 and children

Although the impact of the pandemic has not been as threatening to children as it has been to the Black community and people of color overall, researchers are learning more about how the virus affects children and what they have learned might be cause for concern.

According to an analysis done by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association, from early July to early August, there was a 90 percent increase in the number of confirmed cases among children, and as of Aug. 27, there were over 470,000 reported cases.

Although children of all ages can contract the virus, it’s been found that children over the age of 10 can spread the virus at the same rate as adults, reports Kaiser. In most cases, children under 17 who have tested Covid-19 positive have been either asymptomatic or have experienced mild symptoms, but there have been some cases in which children have either experienced severe symptoms or have died from the virus.

There has also been growing concern about a Covid-19 related illness in children that has circulated throughout various parts of the U.S. Experts believe that the illness is a multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children that presents similar to Kawasaki disease.

Symptoms typically include rash, fever, abdominal pain, diarrhea, swelling of the hands, neck, and feet, along with redness in the eyes, inside the mouth, and lips. Other symptoms include various heart problems and neurological changes such as muscle weakness and headaches.

A June 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 87 percent of the children diagnosed with the virus also tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies, which indicates that they had been exposed to the virus, and 26 percent had active infections.

There has also been growing concern about potential mental health challenges among children and teens that are related to the virus and the pandemic overall. Riana Anderson, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health who studies the effects of racial discrimination, racial stress, and trauma, argues that children who are old enough to understand the magnitude of the virus could experience severe negative mental health outcomes.

This is especially the case for Black and Latino children who also run the risk of suffering negative mental health effects as a result of other issues related to race such as racism and discrimination.

Awareness of the pandemic disproportionately impacting specific racial minorities could be devastating for younger adolescents and teens. Dr. Crystal Clark, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, agrees with Anderson and adds that experiencing the effects of the pandemic is a form of “trauma witnessing” that can be just as damaging to children of color as exposure to violence, which could lead to depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Implications for opening schools

Concerns about K-12 schools returning to in-person instruction seems to be more apparent among minority families. The Kaiser July study found that parents of color were significantly more likely than white parents to feel that schools should wait to return to in-person instruction.

Many fear that the risk for infection and community spread will likely increase as more schools return to traditional instruction.

Some also fear that children will contract the virus while at school and others in the family will become ill, which could be especially detrimental for some Black adults. Recent research suggests that younger Black adults are more likely to be hospitalized due to Covid-19 related complications, with 32 percent of Black adults aged 18 to 49 hospitalized as of mid-August compared to 16 percent of whites, according to data from Covid.net.

These numbers are concerning given that adults aged 18 to 49 are typically the demographic that has school-aged children.

Implications for schools remaining online

If school leaders make the choice to keep learning online, the effects can have an impact in many ways.

Although returning to a traditional classroom setting could cause severe health risks to families of color, the Kaiser study found that schools remaining exclusively remote could also be problematic for Black children and their families. The pandemic has created a childcare crisis for the country that has been felt by parents around the world regardless of race or income. But Black and Latinx communities are bearing the heaviest burden in having to identify alternative childcare options for parents and caregivers who are not able to work from home. Over 60 percent of parents of color shared this concern compared to 41 percent of whites.

Likewise, income and ability to work is also a social service and food availability issue. In many low-income homes, parents heavily relied on school districts to supply breakfast and lunch as well as after school programs. Only 9 percent of white parents are concerned about their children having enough to eat at home if schools remain online, compared to 44 percent of parents of color. The Kaiser poll also found that a majority of parents of color were also concerned that they would not be able to provide their children with adequate attention, even if allowed to work from home.

Academic, emotional, and social development

Most parents and caregivers, regardless of race or income are also concerned that their children could potentially fall behind academically, emotionally, and socially if remote learning is continued. According to the Kaiser study, 76 percent of parents of color fear that their children might fall behind in their emotional and social development compared to 62 percent of white parents. Anderson echoes these sentiments.

According to Anderson, because many Black children heavily rely on teachers and school staff as one of their main support systems, the loss of their presence can be detrimental. This is especially true given the lack of access and utilization that some members of the Black community have to mental health and other support services. Similarly, Sarah Jerstad, PhD, associate clinical director of psychological services at Children’s Minnesota St. Paul Hospital, also expressed concern about the overall effects of children losing a sense of connection with others and the potential negative consequences of forced physical distancing, which she argues is significant for teens.

The Kaiser study also found that 73 percent of parents of color feared that their children might fall behind academically compared to 66 percent of white parents, which makes sense because children of color are more likely to fall behind the longer they stay home from school.

Black children and other children of color have historically underperformed academically compared to white children, which is caused by multiple factors such as poor or no instructional leadership, bias, and racism present in the educational system, and the effects of frequent exposure to racism and discrimination.

Poverty also impacts achievement due to a lack of access to technology and resources in the school or home, inadequate or outdated materials, and a lack of quality after-school programs and facilities. Although parents and caregivers of color have expressed deep physical health-related concerns if schools re-open, they have also expressed similar concerns continued online instruction will exploit these issues.

Mother and daughter reading a children's book on the couchHello Africa/Getty Images

How to have a safer back-to-school

Most schools are giving parents the option to choose between in-person, remote, or hybrid learning for their children. For many parents and caregivers, this is a complex and difficult decision to make, but for those who have decided to move forward with traditional or hybrid learning for their children, there are active steps that the CDC and other medical professions recommend parents and caregivers take to better protect their children and others.

Masks and face shields. Before spending any money on back to school clothes, buy a mask that fits your child correctly and maybe even a face shield that they can wear with the mask if the school allows them to do so.

Educate yourself and your child. Along with wearing a mask, one of the most important ways to protect your children is to educate yourself and your child about what is known so far about the virus and to talk to them about safety. Information is on-going and almost everyday doctors and experts are learning and reporting new information about the virus. Be sure to stay in the loop by regularly checking information on the CDC website and keep your children updated. Especially, about contraction, symptoms, and community spread.

Check your child’s vitals. Although your child’s school will most likely take their temperature before entering, the CDC recommends that parents and caregivers take their children’s temperature before leaving the house.

Pack their lunch. If at all possible, pack your child’s lunch to reduce the amount of physical contact that your child has with other people and outside surfaces while at school.

Avoid school bus and public transportation. For some, this might not be possible, but if it is, the CDC recommends that parents and caregivers not allow children to ride the school bus or any other form of public transportation. That said, for some family’s public transportation might be your only choice. If so, educating your children and making sure they’re wearing a mask and washing their hands is of significant importance.

Emphasize handwashing and hand sanitizer. Fortunately, hand sanitizer is not nearly as difficult to find. So, while you’re making it a priority to purchase the perfect mask and face shield, it’s also a good idea to stock up travel-size hand sanitizer that children can carry with them. It’s also important to teach children to wash their hands regularly. If your child is in middle or high school, a good rule of thumb might be for them to wash their hands before and after each class.

Wash clothes as soon as they get home. The CDC suggests that families make it a habit to take a shower and wash their clothes as soon as they get home. So, when your children get home from school, make sure that they know to immediately put their clothes in a hamper or the washer to be washed and to take a shower.

Don’t forget about mental health. Dr. Crystal Clark, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, emphasizes that importance for families of color to seek mental health services as needed while navigating this trying time. For many in the Black community, recent racial tension in the U.S. has further compounded existing layers of trauma and stress-related to historic forms of racism along with the recent trauma associated with Covid-19. She recommends that parents and caregivers look into utilizing telehealth services for phone and online counseling options.

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