Covid, Race, and the Revolution

Covid-19 and the transformation of education, the surge in deaths among Latinx and Native Americans, and childcare workers unionize, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No. 17, August 5, 2020

Education and the Pandemic

A revolutionary moment is a terrible thing to waste. 

Before Covid-19 hit, families, communities, and advocates were in a pitched battle to fix  the education system that brutalizes and marginalizes Black and Brown children and replace it with equitable education in the US.  The distance learning that the pandemic has necessitated highlights racial inequities and makes the crisis worse. As school districts everywhere debate whether to reopen buildings for the fall, the more important question is how to transform a system that fails and harms so many young people? Angela Glover Blackwell asked three dedicated, wise advocates for educational equity: What needs to happen now, in this crisis, to move toward a system of education that enables all children to achieve at high levels and go on to reach their full potential?
Mark Sanchez - San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Board President: We need to take advantage of the fact that we are in the middle of not just a pandemic but a revolution, and take a moment to reimagine a way forward that centers the most vulnerable. The need for more money to support student learning and development has never been more stark than during this period of school closures and distance learning. There are strategies to meet the need, but they are costly. We know that the students who need the most resources — Black students, Latinx students, special needs students — consistently get the least. That situation has been exacerbated by distance learning. 

The resources exist to apply technology to address the problem, but the commitment to allocate those dollars has not been made, and the inequality gap is staggering: California, for example, is home to the city with the most billionaires per capita — San Francisco — but ranks 41st in the nation in per pupil spending. Wealthy individuals, many of whom have seen their fortunes grow during the pandemic — even as the economy collapses — need to step up to the plate and funnel their wealth to provide resources for students in need of support. Hopefully, seeing the extreme need and inequality highlighted by the pandemic will create more awareness of the need to invest appropriately and generously in our children. Public revenue for education can be generated through targeted taxation, such as the Schools and Communities First campaign, which would reclaim $12 billion annually, in California, from wealthy corporations to invest in schools and local communities.  

Pedro Noguera - Emery Stoops and Joyce King Stoops Dean of the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education: The deepening of the nation’s education crisis, brought on by the pandemic, has exposed the importance of parents to the education of their children. When parents are involved, their children do better academically. That involvement is especially necessary now that schools must partner with parents about distance learning. If we do not invest in preparing and supporting parents to assist students, the harms will be great and difficult to repair. Parents play a crucial role in helping kids value education. The reinforcement of learning at home is in many ways more important than what happens at school. When parents are checking for engagement, comprehension, and learning, it says to the child, “This is really important because my parents are willing to put other things aside to be engaged with me in my own education.” Educators are hyper focused now on how to ensure parental support. Moreover, parents are realizing how important they are to education during this time of distance learning. If these insights and strategies become standard practice and routine after the crisis, it will produce tremendous benefits. 

The particular challenge for parents who are essential workers — the majority of whom are of color — is also being lifted up now as they struggle to find time and money to support their children trying to learn at home. Their dilemmas have always been present, but up until now they were invisible to the public. The heightened awareness about the lives of frontline, low-wage workers may help build support for policies that enable all parents to become genuine partners in the education of their children, regardless of their economic status. 

Sondra Samuels - President and CEO, Northside Achievement Zone, Minneapolis: The pandemic-created educational crisis presents a huge opportunity to reimagine education in the context of essential neighborhood support. It can also garner statewide support for necessary investments to produce educational success for all children. During this period when schools are closed, upper- and middle-class families are hiring teachers and tutors to create pandemic learning pods for their children. Low-income families, on the other hand, who cannot afford to join a $25,000 pod and lack technological resources, have little or no access to this kind of support to handle the distance learning and homeschooling thrust upon them.

Worrying about their health, unemployment, and rent, among other things, is exacerbating the toll of environmental racism — such as an increased number of asthma attacks, for example, among families in neglected neighborhoods. The impact on educational outcomes, from the absence of needed mental and physical health services, access to healthy food, and other essentials is now more obvious than ever. This crisis offers the perfect opportunity to revisit policies to comprehensively close the racial/ethnic and socioeconomic academic achievement gap. Maybe now Our Children MN, a bipartisan grassroots campaign pushing to amend the Minnesota Constitution to give every child in the state the right to a high-quality education, will finally garner the support needed to pass.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) must abandon the “misleading” way it presents data on the race and ethnicity of Covid-19 deaths, three Harvard researchers write in the medical journal JAMA Network Open. They say the agency uses statistical machinations that make the risk among people of color appear lower than it is and inflate the risk for White people, “with consequences for resource allocation for mitigating health inequities.” 

The demand for better data comes amid soaring casualties, with the US recording a Covid-related death roughly every minute, and 31 states experiencing uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus as of last Friday. “Unlike many countries in the world, the United States is not currently on course to get control of this epidemic. It’s time to reset,” experts at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security warn in a new report. The Association of American Medical Colleges puts matters more bluntly:  “If the nation does not change its course — and soon — deaths in the United States could be well into the multiple hundreds of thousands.”

In recent weeks, Latinx and Native Americans have made up a growing proportion of the deaths, a Washington Post analysis finds. Covid-19 now accounts for nearly one in five deaths among those groups, higher than any other race or ethnicity.

The statistical gaps make it especially difficult to track the catastrophic impact on Native Americans, writes the New York Times, which sued the CDC to obtain Covid-19 data and do its own analysis of the racial disparities. “I feel as though tribal nations have an effective death sentence when the scale of this pandemic, if it continues to grow, exceeds the public resources available,” Fawn Sharp, the president of the Quinault Indian Nation and of the National Congress of American Indians, told the newspaper.

On the website The Conversation, Eric Kyere traces the pandemic’s racial disparities to slavery. “Foremost among the unrelenting cruelties heaped upon enslaved people was the lack of health care.” That cruelty laid the foundation for centuries of medical neglect and abuse of people of color.

The US economy shrank a stunning 33 percent from April through June, by far the worst quarterly plunge ever, Time reports, and 1.43 million people filed new unemployment claims last week. The crisis threatens to devastate Black, Latinx, and Asian commercial districts and other ethnic enclaves that fuel the vibrancy, economies, and identities of American cities, and hasten displacement, the Washington Post writes. 

USA Today reports on the heavy economic burdens on Black and Latina women, who struggle to buy food, build savings, and take on unpaid tasks at home without enough support from public policy or the private sector,  

The economic fallout could slash state revenues by $75 billion this year and $125 billion next year, forcing states “to make tough choices about raising taxes or cutting spending on critical public programs and imposing layoffs on public employees,” Lucy Dadayan writes on the Tax Policy Center blog. Budget shortfalls mean city and state programs to subsidize housing have been gutted, or may be cut, across the nation, while Covid construction slowdowns and materials shortages have made ongoing projects more expensive. The convergence of brutal factors threatens to make the affordable housing crisis even worse, Bloomberg CityLab reports. 

On this video, by the Urban Institute, experts describe innovative approaches to state budgeting in the face of the pandemic, based on lessons learned from past recessions. And A Guide for a Just and Resilient Recovery, by the Ford Foundation and consulting firm HR&A, details a four-phase framework through which leaders can aim higher than simply restoring the pre-pandemic reality, and focus intensively on addressing the needs of marginalized and vulnerable populations.

In the biggest union election in the country in two decades, 45,000 home-based childcare providers and employees in California voted to join a union — Child Care Providers United, a coalition of  two larger unions, Service Employees International Union and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Talk Poverty reports. The landslide victory — 97 percent approval — culminates a 17-year battle for the right to organize and bargain collectively. Home-based childcare has played a critical and underappreciated role in the pandemic economy: many remained open when schools and large day care centers were shut, providing the essential service that made it possible for essential workers to go to their jobs, the Los Angeles Times reports.

The largest union representing retail workers — the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union — has called on companies to provide a safe workplace for employees and hire security staff to enforce mask policies, the Washington Post reports. As more big retailers require customers to wear masks, employees — often young, low-wage workers of color — are being confronted by hostile, sometimes violent customers who refuse to comply. 

For migrant farm and food factory workers in the US on temporary visas, getting Covid-19 can mean getting fired. Bloomberg tells the story of Reyna Alvarez, who was working at a Louisiana crawfish processing plant when the coronavirus swept through two dorms that housed about 100 people. She fell ill and sought treatment at a hospital. When she recovered, she learned she’d been fired and reported to immigration authorities. Workers “have to make an impossible decision, between working in hazardous conditions during a pandemic or returning home to insurmountable debt,” said  Evy Pena of Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

In the Los Angeles Garment District —  the largest apparel manufacturing center in the US — immigrants labor in cramped, poorly ventilated factories to meet the escalating demand for masks, Fast Company reports.  The workers aren’t provided with sick leave or, in many cases, even with masks.

School closures last spring were associated with a significant decrease in Covid-19 cases and deaths, finds a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. States that shut schools before infection rates took off saw the best results. But a co-author of the study, Samir Shah, points out that interruptions to schooling also pose dangers. “We can quantify the risk of Covid. It’s much harder to quantify the risk of being absent from school for a prolonged period of time,” he tells Stat. “The decision to reopen schools for in-person educational instruction during the fall of 2020 is among the greatest challenges that the U.S. has faced in generations,” says an editorial accompanying the study.

The Urban Institute will examine trade-offs between in-class instruction and potential health risks, and innovative approaches to ensure the best outcomes for all students at a virtual event on Wednesday, August 12.

A Brooklyn, New York, lawmaker has joined the growing chorus of parents and activists calling on the city to close streets around school buildings to use for small-group instruction, recreation, lunch, and other activities, according to Chalkbeat New York.

It’s the latest development in a dramatic rethink of urban streets during the pandemic, as many cities limit vehicle traffic and expand bike lanes and pedestrian access. But Destiny Thomas, an anthropologist planner, tells the news site Shareable that these shifts have come without genuine resident engagement, especially in communities of color most impacted by the pandemic and protests against racism.

Health experts are debating how much to consider racial equity in deciding how to distribute any Covid-19 vaccine, Fast Company reports. The US is taking guidance on whom to prioritize from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which has not made race- or ethnicity-based recommendations on vaccine use in the past. Some experts fear that prioritizing for race may spur mistrust in Black communities because of the long history of medical racism and abusive experimentation. One expert has proposed assigning priority to high-poverty zip codes.

The conversation is gaining urgency as vaccine trials expand. A new report published by the Center for American Progress warns that a “haphazard” manufacturing system and potential shortages of chemicals and equipment could stall a rapid rollout of a vaccine once one is approved, and urges Congress to improve preparedness.

Meanwhile, US emergency preparedness and management is far too White, a disaster management official told Congress. In blistering testimony, Curtis Brown demanded more diversity among emergency managers and greater equity in emergency planning, hazard mitigation, and disaster response, Thomas Frank writes on E&E News. The pandemic’s racially disparate impact, coupled with ongoing protests, have focused public attention on how vulnerable Black, Brown, and Native communities are to disasters of all sorts, including heat waves, flooding, and other climate-change effects. The 10 counties listed by the CDC as most vulnerable to disasters have populations that are 81 percent people of color, on average.

Marshallese people fled the irradiated homeland in the 1980s for the US after our government tested nuclear bombs on their islands and in the surrounding Pacific Ocean in the 1940s and 1950s. Now they face another existential threat: the coronavirus, Dan Diamond writes for the Center for Health Journalism. In one Iowa county earlier this year, Marshallese represented as many as 40 percent of Covid-19 deaths, though they account for less than 1 percent of the local population. Many work in crowded, low-wage factories and meatpacking plants, suffer from chronic diseases, and struggle with health-care access and language barriers.

With the federal government silent on anti-Asian harassment and attacks — more than 2,000 incidents have been reported — the response has fallen to public service announcements and social media campaigns, the New York Times reports. Hashtags such as #IAmNotCovid19, #RacismIsAVirus, #HealthNotHate and #MakeNoiseToday can raise awareness. But are they enough to stop Covid-19 racism?

PolicyLink and the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color are joining equity leaders from across California to launch the #ChooseUsNotBillionaires Week of Action, which calls on elected officials to ensure a just economic recovery that reverses historical inequities and invests in a future that benefits all Californians.

PolicyLink draws from articles, videos, interviews, and other sources across platforms, as well as from our network of equity leaders and activists, to bring you the latest information about COVID-19 and race. We offer this resource to:

  • Provide easy access to information on the dual health and economic crises facing people of color;
  • Put and keep racial equity at the center of our collective understanding of the pandemic and the policies needed for relief and recovery; and
  • Lift up useful data and insights that can fuel equity advocacy and campaigns. 

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We hope you find the COVID-19 and Race Series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.