Lavanya Sithanandam is medical director of a pediatric practice serving a low-income and minority population and a leader of Together Again MCPS.

Minorities in our country, specifically African Americans, have been unfairly treated by the medical establishment for centuries. This long history of abuse and severe lack of trust has exacerbated the equity chasm during the coronavirus pandemic and may make recovery — from medical, economic and educational standpoints — that much harder for our most affected communities.

Though the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments have become a symbol for medical mistreatment, there is now an extensive body of knowledge about the scientific racism and medical abuse minorities have had to endure before and after Tuskegee. “Medical Apartheid” by Harriet Washington painstakingly details some of the unethical medical experiments conducted on African Americans from the time of slavery until today and chillingly describes the historical exploitation of black bodies for the financial and medical benefit of others. For some African Americans today, medical distrust is not only because of numerous historical accounts, such as the ones researched by Washington, but a result of the very real current-day inequities still present in our health-care system.

Black and brown communities are facing higher rates of coronavirus infection and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black and Latino Americans are dying of the coronavirus at nearly three times the rate as White Americans. This higher rate of mortality is because of a higher percentage of front-line workers in these communities and a higher rate of preventable preexisting conditions exacerbated by poor access to care and an enduring lack of trust.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus inequity doesn’t end there. Parents in Black and brown communities are also less likely to return their children to school. Those of us in the medical community understand this very real fear. The issue of reopening schools in dense urban and minority areas has become complicated over issues of access and trust. When communities of color have had to fight long-standing battles to be treated equitably, why should they trust that their children will be safe when they return to school? When they have had to fight so long for more resources for clean water in their schools, why should they now trust that the school air systems will be able to handle this virus?

Unfortunately, though the fear is understandable, the truth is more frightening. A flood of data reveals that minority students have been hardest hit by virtual learning. A McKinsey & Co. report revealed students of color experienced nearly a half-year of academic loss from the lack of in-person learning in spring 2020, whereas White students lost only one month. In Montgomery County, first-quarter grades revealed African American and Hispanic students from low-income families failed classes at rates 5 to 6 times more compared with last year, whereas White students had minimal increases. Minority students are also enrolling in college at lower rates. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported 26.4 percent fewer high school graduates from schools with a high percentage of Black and Latino students compared with 2019. Inside Higher Ed found that college applications for first-generation students and those eligible for application-fee waivers were down 16 percent this year, with many colleges reporting a decrease in Latino and Black college applications.

Though it is easy to understand why communities of color are skeptical, it is the obligation of the medical and educational communities to arm our patients and families with science, not fear. I run a clinic for a predominantly minority community in the Maryland suburbs of D.C., and I use every opportunity to assuage fears by sharing hard scientific data. Yearly, I encounter patients apprehensive about receiving the flu shot. As their doctor, I take this opportunity to listen to concerns and educate on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. This year, I am also finding a crucial role in educating my patients on the safety and merits of returning to school.

Research consistently demonstrates that schools even in urban and under-resourced settings can be made safe from the coronavirus. A study of schools in North Carolina, including several districts with large Black and brown communities, found very little spread in schools. Another study conducted by the CDC in Mississippi, where public schools are 50 percent African American, similarly found minimal if any transmission between students and staff. This is because basic and inexpensive mitigation measures work. As Joseph Allen from Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program has written, simple mitigation methods such as masking, air purifiers and opening windows are more than adequate to keep the virus from spreading within schools, even older schools.

Now that millions of students have returned to school in the United States and abroad, this data has been reproduced in schools throughout the country and internationally. Some suggest that because White families have been disproportionately represented in those choosing to return, school reopening should be delayed for all so as to not worsen educational equity. This is the exact opposite of what should be done. It is a superficial and static view that does not reflect a deeper understanding of the concerns and needs of minority communities and the uphill battle they face by remaining virtual. Every week minority students remain virtual, regardless of whether White students are virtual or in-person, is a lost week, with more significant and irreversible damage.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona successfully and safely reopened schools in his own state of Connecticut. Just as the federal government and Department of Health and Human Services have launched a federal campaign to combat misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine, especially in minority communities, so must Cardona and the Department of Education educate families about school safety. School systems also need to work closely and creatively with their minority families to earn trust through transparency about mitigation measures. Allowing tours of schools and holding town halls in which education officials truly listen to families’ concerns is important.

It is time to return all kids, and particularly those most at risk for irreversible loss, to their classrooms without further delay.

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