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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Same Storm, Different Boats

RCSD families, students, and staff want to go back to school in person and want to do so safely. Will that be possible this year? Is there a number of educator or student deaths that we are willing to accept in order to have in-person school? Are RCSD, the city, and the state willing to spend the money to make school reopening truly safe? These questions are of particular concern in Rochester, where 87% of students and 40% of staff are Black, Latinx, multi-racial, or Native American.The consequences of racist health care, discriminatory housing, and employment practices are that these students, staff, and their families are at greater risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from COVID-19.


We’re all in this together is a common slogan during this crisis. What this platitude fails to acknowledge is that, while we may all be in the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. The United States is at an unprecedented moment of overlap between a global pandemic, deep economic recession, and an uprising for Black Lives that exposes the structural race and class fissures that have resulted in higher unemployment, exposure, infection, and death rates in Black and Brown poor communities.


Unsurprisingly, the data is increasingly showing that Black and Latinx Rochestarians account for disproportionate COVID-19 cases or deaths. Latinx residents, 20% of the population, have accounted for 45% of COVID-19 cases and Black residents, 39% of the population, have accounted for 43% of the deaths. Black and Latinx communities are more likely to experience economic and social factors that increase risk of illness and death. Below are just some examples:
  • More likely to live in high-density housing (making social distancing difficult), because of decades of residential housing segregation caused by institutional racism. 8.8% of Rochester children were homeless at one point during the 2016-17 school year. 75% of homeless students in Monroe County are in the city of Rochester. 78% of homeless students in Monroe County were living with friends or family, also known as “doubled up”.
  • More likely to live in multi-generational households, increasing the risk of infection of vulnerable older family members. Such living situations also make it more difficult to isolate if an individual gets sick, as space may be limited. In Rochester, 86% of all virus fatalities had underlying health conditions.
  • More likely to live further away from medical centers and to be uninsured, leading to poorer underlying health and barriers to care, increasing the likelihood of severe illness and death from COVID-19. For example, Black, Latinx, and Native American individuals are more likely to have chronic illnesses such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and lung disease — all of which are linked to higher COVID-19 fatality.
  • When employed, more are likely to be required to work outside the home in “essential” jobs that place them in harm’s way for infection. For example, although Black workers make up only 12% of all employed workers, they make up 36% of all nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides.
  • More likely to have a job without paid sick leave, increasing their exposure to other workers who may be infected, and increasing the likelihood that they themselves will expose others to COVID-19. Latinx workers are less likely to have access to paid leave compared to White workers.
  • More likely to rely on public transportation, increasing the risk of viral exposure.
  • More likely to live in areas with poorer environmental and air quality, increasing the likelihood of preexisting health conditions. Rochester’s children are diagnosed with asthma at a high rate; 20% of RCSD students have been diagnosed with it, compared to less than 8% of school-age children that have asthma nationally.
  • Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for most governmental relief funds, and ineligible to enroll in the Affordable Care Act. More than 5 million U.S.-born children who have undocumented-immigrant parents are likely to suffer extreme poverty. As a result, they are much more likely to be uninsured and thus more likely not to receive the health care they need.
  • Over 4,000 (17%) of RCSD students are English Learners (ELs). While many ELs are native born, they overwhelmingly come from immigrant families. In addition to similar healthcare context as undocumented immigrants, EL’s families face added difficulties in poor translation or no translation in their native language.
  • The rate of COVID-19 cases among Black people in Monroe County is 4 times that of White people
  • The rate of COVID-19 cases among Latinx people is 2.5 times that of White people
  • Black and Latinx people are more than twice as likely than White people to die from COVID-19

The effect on human lives is quantifiable: the disproportionate effect of coronavirus means that at least twice as many Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans died because of structural racism that puts them more at risk compared to White people. Continuing the phased restart of physical schools during the pandemic will inevitably increase the risk of infection and death for all Rochesterarians, but especially for over 25,000 RCSD students and families who fall into a vulnerable category because of race and/or poverty.


Students with disabilities make up 20% of the population of RCSD. The shift to crisis distance learning has been especially disruptive for these students. For families of students with disabilities who are also low-income or who do not speak English, the situation becomes even more fraught. Unfortunately, research shows that people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) are more likely to be infected, and more likely to experience serious illness and death from COVID-19. Children younger than 17 years old with IDD were nearly 9 times more likely to contract COVID-19 than children without these disabilities. Initial outcomes show that people with IDD who contract COVID-19 may be 2.5 times more likely to die than those without such a disability. The inadequate guidance from the federal and state levels does not help districts meet the challenge of how to ensure the needs of students with disabilities are met during the pandemic era of education.

Special educators are keenly aware of the challenges of distance learning for their students. Given the high risk of infection and death for vulnerable students, it is critical that we guarantee extra funding to ensure all supports are in place to meet the needs of our students with disabilities. Without targeted funding, the services offered will not outweigh the risks endemic to in-person learning.


To ensure that our most vulnerable students and families are helped, not hurt, by the starting of school, we must implement best practices to mitigate the risk of viral transmission. These practices have been gathered from many sources, including scientific guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), practices from other countries that have reopened schools especially in Scandinavia and Asia, practices from childcare centers in the United States that have been caring for the children of essential workers, and feedback from RCSD educators.


There is no safe restart of physical schools without the foundation of broad community preparedness that demonstrates a commitment to stopping the spread of the virus through objective metrics and dramatically increased funding. This includes:

  • Testing of 100% of the symptomatic individuals in the community
  • Clear, specific, and consistent guidance from public health officers
  • Decreasing or stable infection and hospitalization rates in Monroe County for 14 days and an absolute case number that indicates community spread has stopped
  • Close monitoring of the transmission rate (R0 rate) to ensure it does not rise above 1
  • Paid sick leave for parents and guardians to be able to keep symptomatic children home
  • Clear framework to protect against personal liability, in acknowledgment of the fact that there is no way to eliminate all risk during an active pandemic
  • Greatly increased federal and state funding to support physical distancing and hygiene practices


  • A robust, free testing and contact tracing system for the entire community that explicitly addresses access issues about Black, Brown, and low-income communities
  • Assigned seating in classrooms and on buses so that contact tracers will know exactly who was sitting next to someone who is found to be infected
  • Rapid response and quarantine protocols upon any active infections in students or staff
  • Upon discovery of active infections that necessitate a classroom or school closure, clear protocols and parameters for restarting at the school and district level
  • Clear procedures for confirming that members of students’ household do not have the coronavirus


  • Keeping students in small groups (“pods”) with as little contact with others as possible
  • Plans that account for siblings to maintain the “pod” protections for households
  • Staggered arrival, recess, lunch, and pickup times
  • Drastically reduced class sizes to no more than 12 per classroom
  • Specific implementation plans given each school’s unique physical layout
  • One-way travel in hallways, and lockers assigned by “pods” and/or the elimination of lockers to avoid commingling in hallways
  • Personal protective equipment provided for staff and students
  • Reduced furniture in classrooms to increase space for physical distancing and reduce surfaces needing disinfecting
  • Dramatically changed transportation plans to ensure social distancing
  • Increased air circulation in classrooms and buildings
  • Instruction provided in outdoor settings when possible


  • Frequent and thorough hand washing supported by installation of portable hand-washing stations; adjusted lesson plans to factor in time for hygiene; and considerations for additional supervision needs for younger children’s hand washing regimens
  • Strict and written cleaning and sterilizing regimens, including ensuring schools have proper supplies (including paper towels given the likely need to eliminate hand dryers in bathrooms)
  • Special attention for high-touch surfaces such as drinking fountains, door handles, and faucet handles
  • Adequate supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for all staff and students that are easily and quickly replenished on a regular and evidence based schedule
  • Self-directed symptom and temperature screening of students by parents before they leave home (with a full list of symptoms of COVID-19 as delineated by the CDC: Fever or chills, Cough, Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, Fatigue, Muscle or body aches, Headache, New loss of taste or smell, Sore throat, Congestion or runny nose, Nausea or vomiting, and Diarrhea)
  • Student and staff symptom and temperature screening before entering buses or school buildings (although see above regarding the unknown role of asymptomatic transmission by children)
  • Designated rooms for isolating students who exhibit symptoms


  • Clear options and accommodations for staff and pupils who are at higher risk or have family members who are higher risk (and see above regarding CDC’s recently added risk factors)
  • Clear guidelines for students and staff with health issues that cannot safely wear PPE or that need specialized PPE (such as deaf and hard of hearing students and staff who rely on lip reading)
  • Clear guidelines for safe service delivery of IEP- required services for students with disabilities
  • Additional support for parents who have vulnerable individuals in the household to be able to stay home to reduce chances of infection and death
  • Policies designed to mitigate the disproportionate risk of infection, serious illness, and death in Black and Latinx communities
To help ensure the safest return to in-person schooling possible and the construction of more reliable and sustainable “boats” in this storm regardless of zip code, we must have more than just the basics. Our RCSD school community needs substantial resources and procedures to be put in place to support an in-person learning environment BEFORE anyone enters the school buildings. It is reckless to send our students and staff in at any point prior to having these services and protections in place.


In addition to taking steps to mitigate the risk of viral transmission, RCSD should also take steps to provide increased supports for students, many of whom may be returning to school having experienced increased trauma from the health and economic effects of the pandemic.

A full time nurse in every school, to support health outreach including:

  • Strong programs for free and widespread influenza vaccination for students and staff, given the overlap of influenza with the potential return to school buildings in the fall
  • A coordinated approach with all appropriate agencies in Rochester to ensure children receive all recommended vaccinations before return to school, given the precipitous drop in these vaccinations as a result of the pandemic (leading to increased likelihoods of simultaneous infectious disease outbreaks such as measles)
  • Explicit plans to address social emotional trauma and continued stress amidst the pandemic through increased mental health supports, including: Increased staffing of counselors, psychologists, PSRPs, social workers, interns and substitutes. According to the CDC, even before the crisis, suicide was the second leading cause of death among youth aged 10 – 24 years. An estimated 32% of Rochester Youth reported feeling depressed but only 36% of that number receive any treatment.
  • Explicit plans to carry out health and safety protocols without resorting to punitive policing and punishment
  • No standardized testing infringing on instructional time
  • Increased academic supports to address learning loss, balanced with realistic academic expectations; students and their families will likely be experiencing continued stress and trauma, and the return to school should not become an additional source
  • A commitment to a balanced curriculum with physical education, arts, music and other electives to teach the whole child
  • Explicit plans to avoid marginalization of families where English is not the primary language through consistent communication and opportunities for feedback in all languages spoken in the school community
  • Compensatory services for students with disabilities, including extra supports where needed for transitioning back into the school setting
  • Policies to support staff mental health, including accommodations where needed, clear and regular communication from administrators and the district, opportunities to express concerns, and participatory decision-making processes
  • Pre-opening training and “rehearsals” so staff may adequately prepare and identify areas for improvement

Data Cited From:

Hill, Steven, Ridesharing Versus Public Transit. American Prospect, March 27, 2018. 9 RHA. Persisting Racial Disparities Among Children with Asthma. Respiratory Health Association, May 1, 2018. wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Asthma-Report-Final.pdf

Changes in Health Coverage by Race and Ethnicity since the ACA, 2010-2018. Kaiser Family Foundation, March 5, 2020. https://www.kff. org/disparities-policy/issue-brief/changes-inhealth-coverage-by-race-and-ethnicity-sincethe-aca-2010-2018/

Tsao, Fred. Illinois’ Undocumented Immigrant Population: A Summary of Recent Research by Rob Paral and Associates. February 2014.

Camero, Katie. COVID-19 Kills Children with Intellectual Disabilities at Higher Rates. Here's Why. Miami Herald, June 11, 2020. https://www.miamiherald. com/news/coronavirus/article243470691.html.

CDC. Considerations for Schools. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 19, 2020.

Coughlan, Sean. How England is Following Denmark’s School Safety Model. BBC News, May 12, 2020, sec. Family & Education.


Howard said...

Howard said...

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