As the weeks of home isolation drag on, the unfairness of remote learning is becoming clear. While upper-middle-class families balance full workdays with homeschool sessions, many poor parents have neither the work flexibility nor the equipment to help their children keep up with lessons at home. In some places, needy students just have gone silent. Los Angeles schools recently reported that about a third of high school students aren’t logging on for remote school at all.
The widening gap has educators and parents eagerly anticipating the fall, when most of the nation’s public schools are expected to reopen. But there’s a key variable no one is talking about: The inequality problem won’t go away. In fact, in many places, it’s going to get worse.
Here’s why: Even under the most optimistic scenarios, public health experts predict that a vaccine to stop the novel coronavirus will take about a year to 18 months to arrive—which means it’s unlikely that most of us will receive it before next summer. That’s an entire pre-vaccine school year. For some parents of means, the prospect of sending kids back into the petri dish of school almost certainly will be too scary, so they will choose to delay. And that choice will have serious downstream consequences.
Earlier this month, Kristen Howerton, author of the parenting book Rage Against the Minivan, asked her Twitter followers whether their children would be going back to school in the fall. Many tweeted back strong reservations. “No way we go back to a regular classroom without a vaccine,” wrote one. “We’ll be sending our kid to an online school. Not ideal but there’s too much of a risk otherwise, particularly in a deep red area where people aren’t adhering to most of the distancing guidelines,” said another. How working parents will manage this is unclear—maybe families will band together into smaller at-home makeshift schools, hiring a teacher for just a few kids. Of course, many families won’t have that option, which is where things get really messy.
First, let’s leave the question of educational achievement aside and focus just on the transmission of the virus. Already, it’s clear that Black and Hispanic communities are bearing the brunt of the disease. As my colleagues Eddie Rios and Sinduja Rangarajan recently reported, in some places, the divide is especially stark: “In Mississippi, where 90 percent of counties are particularly vulnerable, Black people make up 38 percent of the state’s population and a startling 66 percent of COVID-19 fatalities.”
In part, that’s because many people in those communities—those who work in retail, package and food delivery, and in hospitals—don’t have the option to hide out from the virus at home. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, an epidemiologist and biostatistician with the University of California-San Francisco’s medical school, expects that dynamic to continue as schools reopen. “Some people have the connections and resources to mitigate the effects of poor health, and if the schools are unsafe, those people will keep their children out,” she told me. “Other communities will have less ability to avoid that.”
If that prediction holds, unequal school attendance could result in even more cases of COVID-19 among poor communities of color. That prospect worries Mercedes Carnethon, a professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She pointed out that while COVID-19 seems to be mild in most children, the real danger is that they can become disease vectors and bring it home. “If those crowded and multigenerational households include older adults and adults with the pre-existing heart and respiratory diseases that lead to worse outcomes, then the health of the family is threatened,” Carnethon wrote to me in an email. It’s not hard to imagine how racism will combine with this dynamic to perpetuate and even strengthen the worst stereotypes. White middle and upper middle-class parents may avoid sending their kids to schools with large Black and Hispanic populations, because they will begin to associate the virus with those communities—and by doing so, they could actually make those stereotypes more true.
Then, of course, there are the academic and extracurricular effects of unequal school attendance. If wealthy parents pull their kids out of public schools, they will likely take their PTA donations ample lobbying resources with them. Affluent parents often foot the bill for “extras” (think music, movement, and sports classes) and even additional teachers.
Michael Rebell, director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia’s Teachers College, worries that in some places, the COVID-19 crisis could undo efforts to integrate schools—which is bad news for all students. Abundant research shows a positive correlation between student achievement and racial and economic diversity at school. “If the more affluent parents keep their kids home for another semester or another year, they’re that much more distanced from public schools, and maybe they’re more likely to go to private schools or a different district,” Rebell said.
Rebell wondered aloud about something that hadn’t even occurred to me: In some states, teacher shortages and high turnover rates already wreak havoc on the neediest schools. What happens if teachers—especially those who are most experienced and may be close to retirement—choose not to come back this fall? Less qualified teachers could replace them, or class sizes could increase, meaning less individual attention for students and greater risk that students in closer quarters will more easily transmit the virus.
Clyde Yancy, a cardiologist who studies racial inequities in health, points out that people who are more highly educated live longer and healthier lives. If the quality of public schools declines because of wealthy parents’ COVID-19 fears, needy students could lose out on the chance to improve their long-term health through education (not to mention the nutrition they get through school food programs). “We have to appreciate the fact that access to quality education allows children to realize a different economic future,” he told me. “If schools can’t provide that, then we’re in real trouble.”
In the end, reopening schools is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Some leaders are already planning for how to minimize the risk of disease transmission in the classroom. For example, California governor Gavin Newsom, with the input of educational leaders in the state, has hinted at the possibility of restructuring the school day: Schools might stagger their schedules with morning and afternoon cohorts. Students could eat lunch in their classrooms instead of congregating in the cafeteria. But other questions remain: How will school buses work? What about gym class? How can pre-k and kindergarten teachers possibly prevent rambunctious littles from getting too close to each other?
Maybe the biggest question is one of messaging: Will superintendents, state leaders, and public health experts manage to convince wealthier parents that it’s safe enough for all children to return to school? Unfortunately, in the absence of a vaccine or a breakthrough treatment, says Bibbins-Domingo, “It’s going to be a tough sell.” And less fortunate kids may end up paying the price.