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Poor, minority students at dilapidated schools face added risks amid talk of reopening classrooms

| January 14, 2021 | 0 Comments


In the United States (US), local, state and federal officials wrangle over how to make schools safe,1 with concern over how to sufficiently disinfect and ventilate2 schools.

But for low-income students, their teachers, and families, returning to school is a more risky proposition due to the age and condition of the buildings to which they would return.

In a 2018 report to Congress, the US Commission on Civil Rights found that3 ‘low income students and students of colour are often relegated to low-quality school facilities’ that lack ‘physical maintenance’. This can ‘negatively impact a student’s health,’ the commission concluded.

Funding gap

Even before the pandemic, some schools were a health risk. When data was last collected, in the 2012-13 school year, the average school was found to be 44 years old.4 High-poverty schools – those with more than 75% of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches – were typically older, closer to 50 years old.5 This is important as aging school buildings are more likely to have problems with air quality,6 asbestos7 and a variety of other environmental toxicants. The National Centre for Education Statistics estimates that 19% of schools have ‘unsatisfactory’ ventilation.8

Students attending aging, inadequate schools are more likely to be low-income minority students.9 This isn’t a new problem.

Part of the problem is how schools are funded, which typically includes large contributions from local property taxes. As a result, richer districts can more adequately fund repairs and new buildings. Inadequate facilities in city schools – often seen as a legacy of white flight post school desegregation – are evidence that low-income students of colour have been left behind. Many school districts are facing pressure to reopen despite the inadequate state of school facilities to protect the health of students and teachers.10 Indeed, under a recent Senate proposal for school reopening, two-thirds of the $70 billion funding11 offer will go only to schools that reopen.

Lost learning

The pandemic has underscored the importance of hygienic practices. In schools, this requires reliable plumbing and clean water in fountains, bathrooms, and cafeterias. Meanwhile, effective air circulation and dependable HVAC systems can help reduce airborne contaminants.12

This does not portend well for the ability of school facilities designed and built from a time long past to cope with the risk of COVID-19.

Reopening facilities before concerns over the safety of buildings are allayed could also lead to excessive absenteeism for both students and teachers.

The dilemma that returning to school poses for lowerincome parents and their children is yet another example of the inequitable opportunities for students of colour. These are children for whom staying at home is likely to have a larger impact on their chances of educational success.

The Brown v. Board of Education ruling of 1954 sent Black children into hostile environments as the nation struggled with its moral compass. It appears that Black and low-income students of colour might soon be sent into school buildings, some of which date from before that decision. This time, whether it is happening with their best interests in mind is at best debatable.


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Category: Summer 2020

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