We Can’t Open Schools, but the Alternative Is Worse for Black Children

Thanks to the digital divide, remote learning threatens to jeopardize a generation of at-risk youth

I’m a glass-is-always-half-full kind of guy. Always have been. My whole life, I’ve accepted a challenge just so I could find its solution. When fear rears its head, I acknowledge the feeling but try not to allow it to take root; instead, I keep pushing forward. But right now, there is a fear that I can’t shake. An anxiety that is wrestling my spirit. As parents and politicians debate sending students back to school this fall, I know that under no circumstance should our nation’s children return to the physical classroom.

This has rocked me to my core. Having spent a good part of my professional life advocating for Black boys, it feels hypocritical taking a stance that in many ways places them at even more of a disadvantage than their white counterparts.

With this issue, at least, my glass is looking pretty half-empty.

My dilemma isn’t based on fear but data. I’m thinking about the intergenerational households that are so much more prevalent in non-White communities; as of 2018, 26% of Black Americans live with multiple other generations as opposed to 16% of White Americans. I’m thinking about the Black community that has been hit disproportionately hard by unemployment and is often on the frontlines as part of the essential workforce. While mom and dad leave the house to go to (or find) work, another relative — a grandparent, an uncle — may be called in to assist with childcare. And I’m thinking about recent data, based on a study of 65,000 people in South Korea, suggesting that children over the age of 10 can carry the virus at least as efficiently as adults.

Covid-19’s mortality rate is already higher in the Black community; at every age group, the Brookings Institute recently found, Black Americans die at a rate equal to White patients a decade older. The underlying socioeconomic factors within the Black community — whether worse dietary habits, the environmental factors that have driven disproportionate rates of diabetes and juvenile asthma in majority-Black cities like Detroit, or well-established correlations between income and health — have created generational health disparities between Black and White Americans. And those disparities just so happen to lead to the very conditions that appear to put Covid-19 patients at increased risk: heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. (Among all minority groups, Black men suffer from the highest overall death rate for all three of those conditions.) The potential for a child to contract Covid-19 then infect older members of the household who are already predisposed to succumb to the disease, is simply too great to justify the risk.

But playing it safe comes with its own fallout. Even as I say that we should cancel in-classroom instruction for at least the fall semester, a digital divide persists that makes distance learning a steeper challenge than it should be. The number of households in the U.S. without broadband internet is likely twice what the federal government has claimed. Further, a recent study by nonprofit organization Common Sense suggests that while uneven broadband access affects every state and every type of community, that divide is more pronounced in rural communities and for Black, Latinx, and Native American households. Currently, Covid-19 school facility closures have forced 50 million K-12 public school students to learn remotely. Nearly a third of those students — 15 to 16 million — have adequate internet or devices at home to make distance learning sustainable and effective. Nine million of those lack both adequate internet and devices.

Why? Money. A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center indicates that more than 18 million households lack broadband simply because it’s too expensive. Many of us are privileged enough that we don’t see our data packages and Wi-Fi service as a privilege. I’m one of those people. On every flight, I’m the passenger anxiously awaiting the captain’s announcement that we’ve reached cruising altitude so I can flip open my laptop. If you’re one of those passengers, too, or you have a grandfathered data package because you’ve had a cellphone since the days when you had to pay for minutes, you need to realize broadband access is, in fact, a luxury. A luxury of economics — and, as many rural communities know, one of distribution.

Research from Chicago’s Benton Institute for Broadband and Society suggests that low-income households can only afford to pay about $10 per month for broadband. Low-income households are making tough decisions about paying for internet access versus utility bills and even groceries. And in a time when the country has seen at least a million initial unemployment jobless claims for 17 straight weeks — meaning in each of those weeks, at least a million new people were out of work — and when food banks worry that they won’t have enough to continue feeding an unprecedented number of hungry, unemployed Americans, $10 per month becomes even more of a stretch.

Estimates project that even returning to classroom learning in early 2021, Black students could fall behind by more than 10 months of academic progress…not because they don’t want to log in to remote learning platforms but because they’re unable to.

That digital divide means the achievement gap will certainly widen. Between March and May, one educational platform saw that only 60% of low-income students were regularly logging into online instruction — as opposed to 90% of high-income students. That sort of disparity persists in schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic students, where just 60% to 70% are logging in regularly.

At the height of the initial Covid-19 outbreak in New York City this spring, I called to check in on a friend who serves as a superintendent in a school district that serves students from vulnerable populations. “We can’t find our students,” he told me, emotion choking his voice. I couldn’t comprehend what he could mean. The notion was utterly alien; how can a school system lose a student? That’s when the digital divide became a vicious assailant in my mind, attacking our most at-risk students. The dangers are real: Estimates project that even returning to classroom learning in early 2021, Black students could fall behind by more than 10 months of academic progress and Hispanic students by more than nine months — and low-income students by more than a year. Not because they don’t want to log in to remote learning platforms but because they’re unable to.

The idea that we can enter an upcoming school year with some students being almost an academic school year behind is gut-wrenching. And that’s just the loss of academic instruction; what about the other benefits of education? Leadership, perseverance, community, an oasis of stability away from an uncertain home life, meal assistance for those who might otherwise go hungry, coaches, mentors, counselors, escapism, extracurricular enrichment, and so much more. I often think about my own high school experience. Activities and the school community is what got me out of bed and excited for another day at school. Getting out of bed for AP chemistry didn’t motivate me despite my awesome teacher — it was my class president duties; it was marching band; it was yearbook staff. So without connectivity to the community, how can a student feel motivated to keep going?

The domino effect leads inexorably to low high school graduation rates. A 2017 study from the Dropout Prevention Organization included data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey showing that 7% of all 16- to 24-year-olds in the United States had not earned a high school diploma or equivalency credential and were not currently enrolled in school. For Black males in that age group that same year, the rate (called the status dropout rate) was nearly 11%.

Make no mistake: We cannot send our students to school for the foreseeable future. But although the alternative may not be a death sentence, it’s still a draconian one. And it’s all due to failed leadership from federal and state officials. We have failed a vulnerable population for a lifetime. Period.

Sit with that when you say your vote doesn’t matter.

Mike Muse Intersects Politics x Pop Culture. He is host of "The Mike Muse Show" on SiriusXM & Co-host "Sway in the Morning" on SiriusXM & ABC News Contributor

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