Study the past if you would define the future. Confucius 

This article was updated Monday, August 3, 2020.

Words are limited.  They are very often (even when we wish otherwise) inadequate to perfectly convey intent, context and meaning.

The word unprecedented is bandied about quite a bit these days and as we are just beginning to stumble almost sleepwalking through the weird landscapes, the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has laid before us.

We are left to figure out the path ahead on our own—without a map or even a piece of string to guide us through the labyrinth.

COVID-19  is like the dye on a deadly and perverse  egg shell, it has exposed  all the cracks and fractures which pre-existed this plague,  it will take eternal vigilance to assure the stresses of what has been exposed doesn’t collapse the entire structure.

Paul Reville, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education, when asked during an interview with The Harvard Gazette to enumerate those things which surprised him most about the COVID-19 education crisis stated:

“One that’s most striking to me is that because schools are closed, parents and the general public have become more aware than at any time in my memory of the inequities in children’s lives outside of school. Suddenly we see front-page coverage about food deficits, inadequate access to health and mental health, problems with housing stability, and access to educational technology and the internet. Those of us in education know these problems have existed forever. What has happened is like a giant tidal wave that came and sucked the water off the ocean floor, revealing all these uncomfortable realities that had been beneath the water from time immemorial. This newfound public awareness of pervasive inequities, I hope, will create a sense of urgency in the public domain. We need to correct for these inequities in order for education to realize its ambitious goals. We need to redesign our systems of child development and education. The most -obvious place to start for schools is working on equitable access to educational technology as a way to close the digital-learning gap.”

Digital learning, no matter its intrinsic inadequacies or advantages, is the method of instruction which, for the foreseeable future, will be taking a prominent role in education in the United States during the pandemic.

Opportunities and Challenges of Digital Learning (Photo Brookings Institute)


Take down of Online Education (Source: Inside Higher Ed)

Digital Divide

The digital divide or lack of access to the internet is most acute in Black, Brown and rural families. According to The Pew Research Center, the technology needed to access the internet is still out of reach for far too many low-income families.  Among families which earn less than thirty thousand dollars a year,  29 percent don’t have access to a smartphone,  44 percent don’t have access to broadband, while 46 percent don’t have access to a laptop or P.C. nor do they own tablets. These yawning deficits complicate an already daunting set of circumstances.

Lower Income Americans have lower levels … (Source: Pew Research)

They are further compounded by issues of connectivity–speed. The magazine Techcrunch reported in California, “1,529,000 K-12 students don’t have the connectivity required for adequate distance learning.”  These same students “…lack an adequate device as well.”  They warned, “The homework gap that separates those with strong connections from those on the wrong side of the digital divide will become a homework chasm without drastic and immediate intervention.”  For the Black community, these deficits can also lead to our nemesis, the school to prison pipeline.

In Michigan, a girl by the name of Grace was placed in juvenile detention for failing to complete her online homework during quarantine. 

Grace, who has special needs (ADHD), was pushed into the pipeline for minor infractions. She is currently being held after a judge refused to release her.  This, despite Michigan’s Governor having ordered the suspension of assignment to detention, unless the student is considered, “a substantial and immediate risk to others.”

The risk of falling afoul of the law is as ever-present for Black children as it was before the pandemic.

In California, several programs have been announced to provide some relief to low income students, however much is left to be done.

Thousands of digital devices have been donated to the most vulnerable, still most remain in need and while there have been partnerships and attempts to address access and connectivity issues—many of these programs and partnerships must be expanded and renewed.

COVID-19 and Children

As has been said a million times before, when White America catches a cold Black America catches the flu. But what do we catch when what is in the air is a deadly virus? 

The response to the crises has been completely inadequate for the majority. Governmental aid has been a patchwork, spotty and totally dependent upon a mish mash of random factors—race, socio-economic status and unsurprisingly, yet especially galling, geography.

The complete balkanization of our COVID-19 response and the novelty of the disease makes it extraordinarily difficult to evaluate with any assurance of what is happening on the ground. 

The management of the pandemic has become so poisonously politicized, the very basic function of a civilized society—to provide a structure upon which  its constituent members may act in coordination with one another to do what is best for itself—has been completely compromised. We are told that even the numbers of people who have been sickened or have died from this disease are not being correctly tracked or reported.  Depending on dueling sources, the true numbers have been either over or underestimated.

On June 25, 2020, Time Magazine reported infection rates may be under-reported by as much as 10 times the current estimations and that was before,  according to an article in the Washington Post dated July 14, 2020, the President changed the  COVID-19 reporting hierarchies taking the data collection  process out of the hands of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the agency tasked with heading and managing the response to outbreaks of disease in this country.

Regardless of who now collects the data, infection rates in the United States are climbing alarmingly, making the U.S. one of the largest current reservoirs of the deadly virus reflected in the numbers of cases as well as deaths. 

It is in this chaotic environment many parents are being asked to make the heavy decision of whether to and when to return children to school without understanding all the dangers they, their families and school personnel may face. 

A few schools in California are asking teachers and staff to sign liability waivers to prevent them from suing in case they come down with the disease and some have been illegally fired for refusing to sign them.

On the federal level, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened to hold up any relief to families unless corporations receive blanket immunity protections from COVID-19 lawsuits. While the California legislature is in the process of trying to pass similar legislation—AB 1384 to protect school districts.

Face Sheet California Legislation Information (Source: California Legislature)

On Tuesday, July 28, The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), 1.7 million strong, stated they are prepared to strike if districts don’t protect the students and staff in their care. The AFT has a specific stipulation of what safety looks like including COVID-19 transmission rates of less than one percent and positive rates under five percent. As a state, we are nowhere near either goal.

While the virus is purportedly less deadly in children, children have and are continuing to die from this disease as well as an associated disorder called MIS-C. The current state of medical knowledge has not given us a clear picture of the connections between the two diseases or even clear data on the rates of lethality. Children have been home since the shelter in place order was given, lending an experimental air to this all.

Florida, which shut down later than other places and opened earlier than most, is currently experiencing a steep rise in cases of children with this disease with 31 percent testing positive for COVID-19 and a 23 percent jump in hospitalizations. Florida is on a tear with a thousand children a day testing positive over a period of eight days.

On top of these concerns, schools, some in terrible states of want and disrepair before the pandemic, will be asked to reliably take on the additional expenses to provide a clean and properly sanitized environment for students to learn in, while providing staffing levels to assure social distancing requirements are met—all of which seem very unlikely.

This for many communities so food insecure, school breakfasts and lunches are the only meals students can reliably count on each day.

It’s More Than Just Bad Blood

On Fox news this weekend Dr. Oz—whose previous reputational issues have been held up to scrutiny—suggested that reopening schools, are an especially “appetizing”” place to start reopening the economy.  This is based on a study in the Lancet which coldly calculates the collateral damage of this bug to low- income and middle-class children which, according to Oz, was projected to be a mere two to three percent loss of life.

Never mind that nothing and no one belonging to Dr Oz will be repeatedly exposed to the same dangers Black children will face.  Many Black children will be returning to chronically underfunded, over-looked and neglected facilities. 

It is not just Dr. Oz. Talking points have gone out and you can hear the faint drum beat of the suggestion that these lives aren’t as important as the man-made construct called the economy.  That drumbeat will get louder.

It is not the first time our people have heard these discordant sounds. Many are familiar with the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments where adult men with syphilis were allowed to rot from the disease just to see what would happen, even though they could have been cured with penicillin.

When these naive men or their families asked what was wrong with them, they were told they had “bad blood.”  Some people may even be familiar with how Black female slaves were tortured and abused by the father of gynecology James Marion Sims, to develop the tools used today in that discipline.

However, few are aware of the lead paint experiments John Hopkins University conducted (with the aid of government grants) on poor Black families in Baltimore in the 1990’s to find cheaper ways of disposing of toxic lead paint. Some of this lead waste was purposefully ground up to make fertilizer which was spread on the lawns where poor Black chicken played. Lead, as are all heavy metals, is toxic to the human body and can damage the brain and nervous system, causing lifelong disability and even death.

John Hopkins University conducted lead paint experiments (with the aid of government  grants)  on poor Black families in  Baltimore in the 1990’s. (Source: Creative Commons Baltimore)

Readers may also be unfamiliar with the unethical experiments conducted on Black and Brown children in New York City where six to ten-year-old boys were dosed with fenfluramine (Fen-Fen) intravenously. These unethical experiments were conducted at the New York Psychiatric Institute which is affiliated with Columbia University. Ironically, these experiments, which ended in 1996, were to test whether violent or criminal behavior can be predicted by the levels of certain brain chemicals—criminal lapses of the Hippocratic Oath and the medical code of ethics, notwithstanding. The babies were the younger brothers of children already in the criminal justice system the experimenters identified through court records. The experiment is a strong reminder of the atrocities of the Eugenics era.

John Hopkins University conducted (with the aid of government grants) on poor Black families in Baltimore in the 1990’s. (Source: Creative Commons Baltimore) (Source: Empire State Building) 

Those Who Fail To Learn From the Past

Authorities are still planning on some kind of physical presence in schools this upcoming school year. Schools in the inland region, like many places in the state, will be unable to reopen for in-person instruction until the respective county, Riverside or San Bernardino, has remained off the state’s watch list for 14 consecutive days.

The Los Angeles School District has announced it plans to begin the school year online–leaving open the date which in person instruction will begin. 

Without accurate information on the effects of this virus on children, let alone adults, parents are left trying to make life and death decisions blindly.

Meanwhile, talking heads and politicians ramble on about herd immunity and acceptable risk/loss.  Many of them, as always, may not feel they have as much skin in the game as Blacks and other minorities. They appear to encourage the “essential” to play with their lives for very little in return.

Russian- roulette should not become a family game—like Monopoly.

On Friday, July 31, 2020 a three-judge panel with Michigan Court of Appeals ordered the immediate release of Grace, the minor mentioned in this article, from a juvenile detention facility in Detroit.

Phyllis Kimber-Wilcox is an undergraduate student, history buff, avid reader, and freelance writer. She is also a doting grandmother, parent, sister, aunt, lover of people, animals, plants, and the planet.