A preponderance of scientific evidence tells us that all schools, K-12, can operate safely in the context of universal masking. Data from Mississippi tell us that youth attending in-person school are less likely to acquire COVID than students remaining at home. We also know that school closures have led to enormous academic loss, a mental health crisis among our youth, and a widening of inequities between the Latinx community and non-Hispanic whites.
Given these findings, we now know that keeping our children in distance learning is less safe than sending students to school for traditional in-person learning. Yet California ranks dead last in the nation in providing access to in-person education: the majority of the state’s 6.2 million public school students remain partially or entirely in distance learning, even in large urban areas such as San Francisco that has the lowest COVID rate in the country. Governor Newsom’s seemingly infinite tolerance for shuttered schools has disproportionately harmed the Latinx community.
Because of a higher likelihood of being employed as essential workers and living in multigenerational households, Latinos and Latinas have been more affected by COVID than any other demographic group in California. While Latinxs make up 39 percent of California’s population, they have accounted for 55 percent of all COVID cases and 46 percent of all COVID deaths.
This disproportionate hardship was not inevitable. It was due to a slow and inadequate public-health response that failed to provide early, targeted messaging in Spanish about COVID risk and the importance of masking. While the Latinx population was more likely to continue working outside the home during California’s multiple lockdowns than their non-Hispanic white counterparts, they were put at higher risk of COVID infection, but received less messaging about prevention.
Lack of in-person school has further compounded these inequalities. The children of essential workers have fewer hours of parental support to help navigate distance learning, causing a widening gap in academic opportunity and achievement along racial, ethnic and socio-economic lines. The situation worsens for English learners, who lack the much-needed teacher and peer support that in person school provides for language improvement. It is also probable that closed schools have increased COVID risks for their children, as unsupervised and thus higher-risk social interactions take place when students are not in school.
Similar to local and state campaigns using trusted messengers to overcome vaccine hesitancy among specific communities, we urgently need effective engagement and communication around the safety of school reopening in both English and Spanish. Further, we need to directly communicate that Latinxs are not more susceptible to COVID but that they have been more exposed to COVID, and that Latinx children, like all other children, are safer in school, where universal masking can be enforced and is highly effective at stopping COVID spread.
Latinx children have been largely abandoned by California’s governor. State and district teachers’ unions have argued that it is somehow equitable to keep schools closed because of lingering fear of return among some families. Rather than characterizing access to in-person education as critical for social equity, Newsom has remained largely silent. These are distorted references to equity and only insure an inferior education for already disadvantaged communities.
Governor Newsom has refused to mandate school reopening, even for next fall. Moreover, he has failed to launch a statewide campaign that conveys how children and youth are safe in school while emphasizing the physical, emotional, and mental health harms to children by remaining in distance learning. This is especially needed for Latinx families who have shouldered a disproportionate burden of illness and suffering during the COVID pandemic and deserve messages of reassurance, especially given the strong narrative of fear put forth by leaders of local and state teachers’ unions.
This lack of a coherent state policy continues to condemn Latinx children to inferior education, growing disparities, and prolonged social isolation.
Dr. Jeanne Noble is an associate professor of emergency medicine and director of COVID Response, UCSF Emergency Dept.
Mara Kolesas, Ph.D. Professor at Fromm Institute, USF, former Berkeley PTA Council president and member of Open Schools Berkeley. @marakole