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Baltimore school board commissioner: Reopening schools puts families at risk | COMMENTARY

High school senior Kimberly Vasquez sits in front of her laptop in her Baltimore home. The 17-year-old senior struggles to access her online classroom because the family’s low-cost broadband plan, Comcast Internet Essentials, does not provide the bandwidth for her and her two sisters to stream teleconferencing applications at the same time. (Capital Gazette Handout)
High school senior Kimberly Vasquez sits in front of her laptop in her Baltimore home. The 17-year-old senior struggles to access her online classroom because the family’s low-cost broadband plan, Comcast Internet Essentials, does not provide the bandwidth for her and her two sisters to stream teleconferencing applications at the same time. (Capital Gazette Handout) (Courtesy photo)

Last week, Baltimore City Schools announced it would be offering an in-person instruction option to elementary school students and high schoolers in the 9th and 12th grades. Since then, I have struggled to express how much I disagree with this decision and, as the policy chair for the Baltimore City School Board, how to reassure the majority of families who very clearly stated that they wanted instruction to remain virtual.

I do not take this position lightly, given that so many students have already been underserved and under-resourced for generations, and face long-term implications from inadequate education. As someone who attended Baltimore City Schools, I can attest to the importance of education for shifting trajectories and opening up new opportunities for success. But I am also deeply aware that this pandemic disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities.

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I grew up in Cherry Hill and came of age in South Baltimore. We grew up living paycheck to paycheck. I was raised by my aunts and uncles, who were all working class poor and often struggled to provide for us. At times, I found myself living in homes of up to 10 people. This hard truth is still the reality for far too many young people in Baltimore today, and COVID-19 exploits these social realities. One exposure in a multigenerational household could mean the difference between surviving or slipping into poverty.

The fact is that Black people are three times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white people, and the burden of the disease must be weighed against the reality that racism means that Black communities will pay a higher cost if exposed. In fact, both racism and poverty are major predictors of poor educational achievement and negative health outcomes in Black and brown communities.

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Let’s be clear: What we are experiencing now is a result of years of underinvestment and disinvestment in Black and brown communities. To call for school re-openings without understanding the real consequences of systemic racism — that Black and brown people will fair much worse and will pay a greater price if they become ill with COVID-19 — is the opposite of educational equity; it’s educational injustice. My lived experience teaches me that it only takes a parent or one caregiver to become sick with COVID-19 for another child to slip deeper into poverty.

When I was sworn into the school board in 2019, I took an oath to ensure that every single student has access to a high-quality education as well as ensuring our ecosystems that support educational excellence are healthy and intact. Because of this oath, I cannot in good conscience willfully send any student, many of whom are living in multigenerational family households and in concentrated poverty, back into classrooms when we are in the worst and most deadly phase of the pandemic. Just last week, Massachusetts and New York City reported hundreds of COVID-19 transmissions among students and staff from the prior week.

The cost of this pandemic is weighing heavily on each of us in many different ways. Yes, learning loss is real and must be mitigated. However, exposing our students to COVID-19 and forcing our educators and staff back into classrooms now with a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant that is estimated to be as much as 70% more contagious circulating is unacceptable, even if children are only half as likely as adults to spread it.

The truth is this: Many of our educators know how to mitigate 9 months of learning loss. With the appropriate resources, educators have been closing educational gaps fueled by systemic underfunding in our district for generations. Instead of rushing to expand in-person instruction, we should be working diligently to ensure our virtual instruction is the best that it can possibly be.

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We must ensure that every single family has access to high-speed internet. We must fully support our teachers who are also navigating the pandemic’s impact on their families. We must help teachers get vaccinated quickly. We must fully invest in social and emotional learning, trauma-informed care. And we must, dare I say, move toward a love- and healing-centered educational approach to address the looming mental health crisis our students, educators and staff face. We should not expand in-person instruction, but instead collectively advocate for funding to not only mitigate 9-months of learning loss, but generations of learning loss among Black and brown students.

Durryle Brooks (durryle.brooks@gmail.com) is the policy chair for the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners and a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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