Opinion: NJ’s children are living in a tale of two states

Disparities in vaccine distribution in Black and white communities are just one reason communities of color are more comfortable keeping children home
Shennell McCloud

Newark’s “Reopen schools!” has become the rallying cry du jour, with news coverage featuring parents frustrated that their kids are still stuck in remote learning. Underlying these stories is the assumption that everyone must want their kids back in school, but have we stopped to listen to what parents are actually telling us?

We’ve all read dozens of news stories and opinion pieces that lead with some version of “Black and brown people are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic.” But it wasn’t until last week that I truly understood the depth of the difference between how Black and white New Jerseyans are experiencing this virus.

Why last week? That’s when I saw the latest round of polling results that Project Ready commissioned to understand the effects of COVID-19 on New Jersey residents. The results shook me to the core.

Note: I am focusing on the divide between Black and white New Jerseyans in this piece because it is where the racial divide is most profound. This is not to diminish the devastating impact of the virus on Latinx communities. However, I believe that something unique is happening in Black communities, which policymakers and activists must address.

The pandemic’s economic impact has been widely reported, and our results confirmed that Black New Jerseyans have been hit hard. Forty-three percent of Black respondents have had working hours reduced, and a quarter have lost a job. Having to leave a job or work fewer hours due to lack of child care has been particularly acute in African American households (18%) compared with white households (5%).

Plumbing the racial chasm

Where the divide becomes a chasm is when we asked about children’s education. White children are almost six times more likely to be learning in-person (at least part-time) than Black children. These results are similarly divided along urban/suburban lines.

There is a stunning inequity happening right under our noses. The majority of Black children are continuing to learn remotely while their white peers in more affluent suburbs are returning to school buildings, which we know is a superior form of education for most children.

Here’s where the data gets really interesting: Black and white parents also want very different things for their children: 73% of white parents would send their children back to school in person if they had that option, compared with just 24% of Black parents. Similarly, 67% of Black parents would prefer to keep their children learning remotely, compared with 23% of white parents.

As a Black parent myself, this is heartbreaking — not because parents are doing anything wrong by choosing what they believe to be the safest option for their children and their families, but because, as a society, we have let families down by not creating the conditions for Black parents to feel comfortable sending their children back into school buildings.

What can policymakers do to address this inequity?

First, we need to ensure that all families have equitable access to remote learning for as long as it needs to continue. Our poll showed that while most families have the devices they need to access the internet, a third (36%) of Black parents lack sufficient internet access compared with just 13% of white parents. Ensuring that every family has access to high-speed, broadband internet is something that state leaders must continue to prioritize.

More equitable distribution of vaccines

Second, we need to increase the distribution of vaccines among communities of color and among teachers. White voters are three times as likely to say they have already received the vaccine as Black voters (18% to 6%). This inequity will grow without a focused effort to vaccinate communities that have been hit the hardest. I believe there is a direct correlation between this low vaccination rate and Black families’ hesitance to return to in-person school.

When you combine the fact that Black residents are more likely to know someone who’s had a severe case of the virus with the low vaccination rate, it’s not surprising that people are wary of doing anything to expose their household to more risk. Gov. Phil Murphy just increased vaccination access to teachers, which is no doubt a good next step. That said, we need to continue to ensure vaccination access is equitable for Black and brown teachers. A recent New York Times analysis showed that we could vaccinate each of the 5 million adults working in schools using less than one week’s worth of vaccine supply. Imagine the societal impact it would have if children could return to school en masse and we didn’t have to worry about teachers getting sick? New Jersey should lead the way here.

Third, schools need to do a better job of engaging parents, sharing information about why it’s safe for their children to return to school and testing students regularly for COVID-19 as they return in person. I started my career doing parent engagement in schools, and I can tell you — every school wishes they dedicated more time and effort to this. It’s about doing the hard work to build trust that sets you up for success in moments of crisis like the one we’re in now. For a lot of Black families, that trust isn’t there. It won’t be built overnight, but school districts can start to build it right now. When children return to school, testing them regularly will help lower transmission rates and increase parent confidence that their children’s schools are safe.

If we take these steps now, I believe we can get the majority of students back to school before the end of the school year — a critical step if we’re going to begin closing COVID-related inequities.

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