By Randy Singleton
NJG Community Correspondent
As K-12 public school administrators in Hampton Roads and across the nation formulate their safe-reopening plans for the upcoming school year, a serious question has been posed by the newsroom staff of this media outlet. The question surmises, “What are the chances that when K-12 schools reopen, the predominantly Black schools will have the worst Covid-19 infection rates, largely due to current healthcare disparities?
No one has addressed this possibility at all in the national media. Analysis of key coronavirus health metrics, such as the rate and number of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, strongly suggest the possibility that majority minority schools will bear the burden of having the highest Covid-19 infection rates when schools reopen. Community stakeholders have agreed with this hypothesis and provided further evidence. Roz Muhammad, a family advocate in Atlanta, Georgia, said that Black kids often suffer from obesity, asthma, and other health issues caused mainly by poor nutrition and food insecurity at home, which may make them more susceptible to contracting the virus and spreading it to family members at home.
New Journal and Guide Chief Reporter Leonard Colvin recently wrote a story on the expansion of food deserts in Norfolk, Va., due to the closure of neighborhood grocery stores. He asserted that this has had a disastrous effect on local families. Black families often have members who are frontline workers in the pandemic. Many of these families are multi-generational; and with kids returning to school, could put older members at risk of contracting the virus.
Teachers and staff members, who have pre-existing health issues, employed at minority populated schools are also placed at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus due to the confirmed high rate of spread in minority communities in which these schools are located.
Western Tidewater Health District medical director Dr. Todd Wagner was interviewed by this reporter for new information on the coronavirus and its impact on minority schools. Dr. Wagner said, “We certainly have a significant uptick in cases in Western Tidewater (Suffolk, Isle of Wight, Southampton, Franklin), Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, and others. We also see that the age of those cases has shifted a lot. It has shifted to a younger demographic: 20-29 year-olds.” Dr. Wagner was asked his opinion about masks and social distancing in schools. Dr. Wagner responded, “We are in a very significant situation and in the absence of a vaccine, the only thing we really have is social distancing and masks. They are very important. They are the only tools we have in the tool box and it takes everyone to participate in that. This is a team effort.” Dr. Wagner said that he did not think that there will be a full return to all in-person classes but rather a mix of virtual online classes and partial in-person classes or all online classes. Dr. Wagner was asked his opinion on the possibility of minority schools in impoverished neighborhoods having the highest Covid-19 infection rates, given the fact that they currently have health disparities such as poor nutrition, parents who are frontline workers, multi-generational families living in the home, and the proclivity that some of the kids may be resistant to wearing masks and social distancing in school.
Dr. Wagner said, “You’re absolutely right. We see those factors in the public so I would say it most likely will be mirrored in the schools in those areas. You hit a lot of factors on the head. They may come in with a variety of pre-existing medical issues and multi-generational families which is concerning because as a general rule, the younger kids don’t get sick but they can pass the infection on to older family members, and that’s where the hospitalizations and the deaths can occur. You are right and that is an astute observation.”
Dr. Wagner further added that health care professionals must also continue to monitor the jails and long-term care facilities, in addition to schools, because of the potential for them to become tinderboxes of Covid-19 infections.
Dr. Wagner said more resources need to be directed to schools so they can comply with CDC, state, and local health department guidelines for the safe-reopening of schools. Currently, Norfolk has opted for a virtual reopening. Virginia Beach Superintendent Aaron Spence has suggested a virtual reopening for the resort city. Suffolk, Portsmouth, and Chesapeake have put forward a hybrid mix of online learning and some in-person classes for parents to choose from. Because this is a rapidly changing situation and since local schools don’t open until after Labor Day in September, school boards still have the flexibility to change these plans and go all virtual if the rate of Covid-19 infections continue to escalate in Hampton Roads, as they currently are.
Speaking recently in Hampton, Va., where he announced a $70 million dollars grant program for small businesses, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam warned during a question-and-answer session with the local media that he has been closely monitoring the increasing number of coronavirus cases in Hampton Roads ( over 12% for Hampton Roads, rest of state 7.5, 7.7) and would issue further guidelines, which may include a rollback from currently Phase 3 to Phase 2.