By Roz Edward
Minority communities, hit hard by COVID-19, seem to view a return to the classroom quite differently compared to their white neighbors.
In Detroit teachers and students returned to classrooms in the Detroit Public School District on Monday, March 8 for the first time since last fall.
It wasn’t quite business as usual in the DPSCD as teachers and staff back in the classroom for the first time in nine months kept a close eye on students to make sure they stayed six feet apart and wore their masks over their noses. And many students still took some lessons online because not enough teachers agreed to return to their classrooms to meet demand from families.
An estimated 20,000 students were expected to report to school, or about 40 percent of the 50,000 students in Detroit, while only 20 percent of teachers are returning to in-person learning.
“My biggest concern is that we’re not completely matching student demand with teacher willingness to come into the classroom,” explained Detroit Schools superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who admits that only 1,000 students will have full face-to-face instruction. “But I’m optimistic that over the next weeks or months, that when these teachers talk to other teachers about the safety standards that we have in place, more will come back.”
While parents, as well as teachers, expressed strong concern for the student-to-teacher ratio and its impact on an already over-taxed learning environment in communities of color, their paramount concern continues to be the safety of students and faculty during the ongoing pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control – while U.S. residents of all races have died from COVID-19 Latino and African Americans have been three times as likely to be infected compared to whites and nearly twice as likely to die.
In Detroit, distrust in health care has made the district especially slow to reopen. With a community population that is 78 percent Black, the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 have sowed fear about receiving vaccine, as well as a reluctance from teachers to inform the district that they’ve been inoculated.
In a study conducted by the Minnesota Department of education, a majority of minority families responded that they do not feel comfortable sending their students back to in-person classes, even though most admit that online learning magnified the issue of learning disparities between black and white students. One participant in the Minnesota study described schools as a “virtual petri dish for disease.”
And while DPSCD students and teachers will not be forced to return to school post-vaccination, students and teachers may opt for virtual learning while physically attending school. Classes would be monitored by an adult supervisor, while students receive online instruction from teachers working remotely.
“I’m just not comfortable with sending them to school just yet. I feel that they’re not ready,” confided DPSCD parents Kimble and Ta’Mara Williams who have chosen to keep their students at home. “The teachers are not ready and the students are not ready as well,” said Kimble.
Health officials in Detroit estimate that approximately 9,000 teachers have been vaccinated to date.
In an effort to narrow the gap between the numbers of teachers and students returning to in-person learning on March 2, President Biden announced he is directing all states to prioritize school staff and child care workers for COVID-19 vaccination. He is challenging states to get teachers, school staff, and workers in child care programs their first shot by the end of March.