For the past two years, my wife has tutored inner-city kids on Wednesday nights. This is not a project for her, not a way to fill her “doing good” quota. She is a very gifted teacher who loves her kids. One of the great privileges of my life is to see her joy as she describes her time with the kids (OK, it’s not all a joy, but mostly). So she has a lot of credibility when she shares her heartache over the effect of the pandemic on inner-city children and her, at least partial, solution.
First, the effect. To begin with, inner-city children often don’t have the technology to participate in online learning. Even if they do have the technology, often they either aren’t participating or are minimally engaged to the point where there is no benefit. On top of that, they have traded a structured, supervised classroom routine for distance learning without familiar teachers and classmates.
Add to that the stress in the homes of these kids from having one or more children home all day, every day. As reported in the Washington Post, since schools closed around the country reports of abuse are down — because nearly 80% of perpetrators are parents of the victim and educators report abuse more than any other group.
In 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 1,770 children died from abuse and neglect. Since schools closed, child fatalities have increased dramatically.
Obviously, child abuse isn’t restricted to the inner city. But the harsh reality is, through generations of racial and economic disparities, a disproportionate percentage of inner-city families face poverty, unemployment and poor education which can create dysfunctional environments in which there is neglect and abuse.
For some children, school is their safe place. We are subjecting our most vulnerable, highest-risk kids to even more risk of falling behind, and of dying.
It is a fact that having inner-city kids out of school, after-school programs and summer camp for an extended period of time will have devastating and permanent consequences. Educational inequities that already existed will obviously widen and the number of kids who may have caught up will be reduced, almost certainly by a lot.
The number of kids who might have stayed off the path to gang violence, drug addiction, crime and the like will also go down, again almost certainly by a lot. And the number of kids who will die, not by being infected by COVID-19 but by these indirect causes of the pandemic, will go up by a lot.
And here’s the point: the number of deaths from these indirect causes will be higher than the number of deaths resulting from actual infections. Ten children under the age of 15 have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. No one needs to be able to calculate the exact number of deaths from these indirect effects to know they will vastly exceed the number of child deaths from the virus.
Now for my wife’s solution. Identify the children most harmed by school closures and send them back to school as soon as possible. Administer serology tests to teachers willing to teach these children. If there aren’t enough immune teachers, let volunteers fill the rest of the roster. People should have the right and ability to choose the risk of being infected in carefully controlled settings like this proposal.
My wife is 60 years old but it is not a close call for her whether she would choose this risk — she will be first in line to volunteer. I believe we will be greatly encouraged by how many others step up. There will be details to address regarding how to reduce the risk of the children becoming infected and infecting others. But the fact is there are already many jobs where this risk has been addressed or a determination made that the risk is necessary: child care centers, grocery stores, Target, Walmart, etc.
This week Gov. Tim Walz gave school districts more flexibility in designing “hybrid” summer programs incorporating in-person learning. They should use it. Leaving huge numbers of children behind and setting some on a path to crime, addiction, abuse and death is not an acceptable risk when it is not children who are dying from COVID-19.
Chris Penwell is an attorney in Minneapolis.