People of color and minority groups are particularly at risk during the pandemic. Here’s what should be done to better address these communities.

USA TODAY

Don’t demand that schools open without support or hide behind the mantra, ‘It’s all about kids’ health.’ Target money, spend it fast and make it safe.

Our national consciousness about racial inequity has been lifted to welcomed new heights in the past few months. The issue now is what exactly is going to be done to reduce inequity. Tearing down statues won’t contribute anything. Individuals committing millions of dollars to community action groups will help, as will increased commitment by business leaders to open up career ladders for people of color.

However, despite all the good that might come from these welcomed changes, we are about to deliver a blow to the Black and Latino communities that will set back racial equity enormously. That blow is the failure to fully open K-12 schools, in particular those in large urban centers, in September.

Look at the data: Nearly 26% of students in the New York City public schools are Black and almost 41% are Latino. More than 60% of these kids are likely to attend a school where more than 75% of students experience poverty. Similar ratios exist in Chicago, Los Angeles and many other of our large cities. If schools do not open fully, most of these kids will lose much of the 2019-2020 school year and much of the upcoming 2020-2021. 

Don’t doom children to despair

Keep in mind, these are the children that have faced the most difficulties with online learning. One survey in Philadelphia said nearly 50% of students never participated in a single online class during the March-April lockdown. Losing two years of learning for any K-12 student probably dooms that child to a future of economic and social despair.

Further to this tragedy of increased racial inequity, the parents of these children will continue to be hurt because they cannot afford the child care expenses to allow them to continue working while their kids are home during normal school hours.

Epidemiologist: Schools need to reopen now. Here’s how to do it safely.

What should we do? Politicians demanding that schools open without any concrete supporting programs are not helpful. Equally unconstructive are leaders hiding behind the mantra, “It’s all about children’s health.” A healthy child needs more than a safe physical environment; that student needs intellectual stimulation, regular social interactions and emotional maturation that comes from group interactions. What we do need is politicians, educators, union and business leaders to come together to create and fund real solutions.

Let’s start with money. We just spent $4 trillion to support businesses and the unemployed in the United States. Why not half-a-trillion to try to prevent a generation of people — predominately people of color — from tumbling into an economic gulag? This $500 million would be just a bit over 10% of what’s been spent already for the unemployed and the business community, and this new investment is for the future generation of America. It’s a small amount once we realize we’re talking about tens of millions of kids who need to be our educated workers, consumers and taxpayers.

Where should the money go? A lot of work needs to be done here and in a hurry.

Epidemiologist: Schools need to reopen now. Here’s how to do it safely.

The first priority must be safety: PPE, regular testing and cleaning. Investments must also be made in safe transportation and for computers for students who can’t afford the technology they will need to compete.

Second, we need to reform the traditional school day, and that means funding incremental teaching hours to provide a longer school day and academic year. The 180-day calendar with a six-hour school schedule is already out of date. Now that it has been significantly reduced, it spotlights the real need to rethink the structure of education.

For an example of how we should not do it, look at New York City’s recently announced plan: It limits class instructors to no more than 10 days per month, with kids in school only two to three days per week.

Half-days everyday for every child

A far better plan has been proposed by my former colleague and education expert, Stanley Litow. It calls for half of the student population to attend a morning session every school day and the other half to attend an afternoon session. During the break between sessions, the classrooms can be sanitized, while the smaller class sizes can allow for social distancing and safer classrooms.

This schedule provides students and parents with schooling that is close to a normal school day with four hours of instruction. When this was used back in the 1950s, it resulted in no cut in attendance or achievement, and 70 years later, we can supplement that attendance with online learning.

Outside COVID-19 hot spots: Try to reopen schools based on local data and safety resources

What’s needed?

► Congress and the president must authorize the money.

► A task force of eight to 10 government, school, union and business leaders is empowered to award the funds.

► School districts present plans for operating the schools that meet criteria established by the task force.

► The best plans are granted funding with money flowing only as specific milestones are met.

► Ongoing evaluation to learn what programs are the most successful. If America really wants to reduce racial inequity, then let’s go to the heart of the issues and avoid unequal education that will lead to unequal opportunity.

It is going to take much effort and much money to truly reform K-12 education in America. We must act now to avoid making the upcoming school years the source of decades of poverty and despair for millions.

Louis V. Gerstner Jr. chairs the Board of Directors of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and is retired chairman and CEO of the IBM Corporation. He is the author of “Reinventing Education: Entrepreneurship in America’s Public Schools.” 

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