With September just around the corner, I spent a lot of time last month talking to parents in Hamilton about the upcoming school year.
It’s a more complicated conversation than in most years, with COVID-19 cases increasing across the country and four months of remote learning this past spring as our only vantage point of what school could look like without a school building. There seem to be a lot of sleepless nights across Hamilton.
The State of New Jersey has long insisted that school buildings reopen in September. What exactly this looks like remains to be seen, as the state announced July 20 that it would permit parents to opt their children into remote learning instead of in-person classes. In theory, this means parents now have a choice about where and how their children learn this school year.
In my discussions with parents, the consensus was unanimous—they all wanted their children to stay home this fall. This admission almost always came with acknowledgement that they were fortunate to be in the position to make this decision. And they worried about the families who weren’t.
Their world may be far away from many of our daily lives, but there are hundreds of families in Hamilton who rely on the school system as child care, as a food provider, as a safety net. They will have no choice but to send their children to school this fall.
Statistics show that, in Hamilton, they are more likely to be Black and Hispanic, which adds another layer of complexity because they just so happen to be the same groups that are the most susceptible to suffer serious complications due to COVID-19. (According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black people with COVID-19 have been hospitalized at five times the rate of white people, and Hispanic people at four times the rate of white people.)
It’s not just nationally. Black and Hispanic residents have been affected disproportionately by COVID-19 in Hamilton, too, accounting for 40% of confirmed cases but only 29% of the town’s population.
This is important because while the township as a whole is a quite diverse place, our neighborhoods—and by extension our schools—are essentially segregated. Greenwood Elementary is just 3% white. Lalor Elementary and Wilson Elementary are both 9% white. Meanwhile, across town, Morgan Elementary is 61% white, Alexander Elementary is 68% white and Yardville Elementary is two-thirds white.
Data shows that as the township gets whiter, it also becomes wealthier. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, 82% of students at Greenwood Elementary come from economically disadvantaged families. At Wilson Elementary, 73% are economically disadvantaged. At Lalor Elementary, 80%.
The numbers at Morgan Elementary (19%), Alexander Elementary (18%) and Yardville Elementary (15%) paint a far different picture. Their students have entirely different realities than their counterparts at the first three schools.
These different realities are important when taking COVID-19 into account precisely because, in Hamilton, economically disadvantaged students of color are often grouped together in the same school building. Often, this school building is one like the 104-year-old structure that houses Greenwood School—constructed in a way that makes social distancing virtually impossible.
With fewer students able to stay home and with the limitations of enacting hybrid learning models in older school buildings, the students—and teachers—at these schools will be the test subjects in this grand reopening experiment. They will be the ones who get sick. They—or their family members—could be the ones who die.
Clearly, the process of reopening schools—especially in a district so large—is incredibly complex and complicated. I have no envy for the job superintendent Scott Rocco and his staff have to do, particularly because they have to develop a plan while adjusting every time the state moves the goalposts.
They have to take into account that the children most likely to be going to school this fall are the same kids without the technology needed to work remotely, the ones who would go without breakfast and lunch without school, the students without access to masks and hand sanitizer and all the things a person needs to stay safe amid a pandemic. They also need to consider that these children are most likely to be the students who go to school sick—because their parents have to go to work.
This is most likely why Hamilton has opted to keep schools open for full days while many neighboring districts are only doing half days. The school district will ensure the students get the things they need to thrive.
But the good of having students in school must be weighed against the potential danger, considering that health experts agree that cases will increase once we put students and staff together inside school buildings. The only question is: how many cases are acceptable? How many deaths?
I keep coming back to my conversations with Hamilton parents. As one mother put it to me, “I always put life first. When someone dies, you can’t take that back.”
I’m hoping that someone, somewhere, will come up with a way to make that basic concept equitable. That, somehow, we as a society figure out a way to ensure no parent will have to choose between keeping their children safe or providing for their family.