Fewer resources, inexperienced teachers, and a lack of access to advanced courses — those are just some of the racism-driven educational inequalities facing majority-Black campuses in the United States. But when it comes to COVID-19 safety policies, could America’s K-12 public schools actually be doing right by Black children?
Word In Black’s snapshot poll of 10 majority-Black districts suggests that the answer might be yes. In terms of vaccine requirements, masking, and testing, it seems there’s largely no difference between how schools with majority-Black and majority-white student bodies are navigating the pandemic.
Of the 10 districts Word In Black polled, more than half required students to be masked at all times, with some extending that to include the school buses. While only some had testing policies in place, most districts require some sort of “screening” before school. There also weren’t any identifiable trends between majority-Black or majority-white districts about which had stricter or looser COVID-19 safety policies, or in terms of coronavirus cases.
Using guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the safety policies — masking, physical distancing, ventilation, random testing — are set at a district level.
“You may have a district that has some predominantly Black schools, as well as some white schools. And then you certainly have some districts that are more racially diverse than others,” says Dr. Ivory Toldson, a Howard University professor and the president of Quality Education for Minorities. “These are policy decisions that schools don’t independently make.”
Word In Black selected five school districts with majority-Black student populations, which were identified using a Washington Post database of student integration. To find comparable districts, Word In Black looked within the same congressional district to identify five school districts with the least similar demographics among the student body, looking for majority-white populations. The information was gathered through responses from the districts and information available on their websites.
The school districts included were Holmes County Consolidated, West Tallahatchie, Coahoma County, Madison County, Lincoln County, and Franklin County in Mississippi; East Cleveland City and Cuyahoga Heights Local in Ohio; and East Carroll Parish and West Carroll Parish in Louisiana.
All of the school districts surveyed are reporting for in-person classes this school year, with two (one majority-Black, one majority-white) under temporary virtual learning at the time. Universally, none of the 10 school districts included in this analysis have vaccine requirements for students.
However, while the level of testing varies from district to district, regardless of racial demographics, all of the districts have a screening process in place for students. Before entering the building, students must report any symptoms, and many districts take students’ temperatures more than once during the school day (before school, and then again a few hours later).
Again, regardless of demographics, all but two districts (one majority-Black, one majority-white) said they are currently hosting or have previously hosted vaccine clinics.
While the schools polled by Word In Black did not provide percentages of the student body that is vaccinated, Chalkbeat did a similar data collection in Chicago’s public schools. Though Chalkbeat couldn’t identify any clear demographic trends between vaccination or testing rates, they found that majority-Black high schools had an average 28% vaccination rate, compared to an average 58% vaccination rate in majority-Latino high schools.
Part of the Word In Black analysis including looking at COVID-19 cases per school district using state numbers. However, data reporting is inconsistent, and Education Week has previously reported that there is no completely accurate way to determine the number of cases in a school, let alone an entire district. EdWeek also noted that just because a school reported a student or staff as testing positive, it does not mean that the school was the transmission location.
That being said, there weren’t any identifiable trends in COVID-19 cases in the schools in terms of demographics or their safety protocols.
With inconsistent reporting, it can be difficult to know exactly what’s going on inside schools. Earlier this week, New York City students staged a walkout to protest the lack of COVID-19 safety measures in their schools and demanded a virtual learning option. A new report found that, in NYC, 1 in 5 staff members and 1 in 14 students have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year in September. The students’ demands include more testing and better screening measures to find positive cases.
As there continue to be nationwide debates over the benefits of in-person learning against public health, many of the school districts in this analysis have an additional incentive to keep students healthy and stay in-person: their counties and residents do not have access to broadband internet. Three of the counties with majority-Black school districts in this analysis show up in a previous Word In Black analysis looking at internet access.
Holmes and Coahoma are in the top 10 counties in the country with the highest Black populations. In Holmes County, 50% of households don’t have internet, compared to 36% in Coahoma. East Carroll and West Carroll parishes are among the top counties in the country that have the least internet access, with 55% of East Carroll households and 50% of West Carroll households going without internet. Returning to virtual school would omit large parts of these student populations from participating.
All schools want to provide safety — from disease, as well as from mental and physical harm — for students. But predominantly Black schools serve an additional function.
“They help students to understand themselves and have pride in themselves,” Toldson says, “and be able to withstand some of the societal issues that can make Black children more vulnerable to racial discrimination and other types of social injustice.”