No less of an authority than Anthony S. Fauci, expert immunologist and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, highlights how covid-19-related deaths and hospitalizations, including intensive-care intubations, are significantly higher among African Americans than their population share. This reflects greater prevalence of underlying medical conditions that increase risk, including diabetes, hypertension and asthma. Such data broken down by ethnicity “shine a very bright light on some of the real weaknesses and foibles in our society,” Fauci concluded.
Among D.C. residents, 4 in 5 of fatalities were African Americans, who make up less than half the population share. This heartbreaking pattern is repeated elsewhere. In Chicago, nearly 3 in 4 virus-related deaths have been African American, who comprise only one-third of the population. State statistics highlight other hot spots including Detroit, New Orleans and Prince George’s County — all majority African American.
In the District as elsewhere, African Americans are less likely to have health insurance and adequate access to health care, compounding a higher incidence of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, overcrowding and minimum- and low-wage employment. The Latino population and immigrant community in the District face similar inequalities that school closures have brought into focus.
While 94 percent of District whites have a bachelor’s degree or higher, only half of Latinos and one-third of African Americans do. Unsurprisingly, this educational attainment gap is reflected in income and employment on U.S. Census figures. The same source shows that average white income in 2017 was slightly more than $160,000, compared with a little more than $76,000 for Latinos and slightly more than $48,500 for African Americans. District unemployment rates in 2018 were 14 percent for African Americans, 7 percent for Latinos and only 3 percent for whites.
Accordingly, the pandemic has exposed inequalities as education has moved online — work that can’t be performed at home, exposing usually lower-paid adults to greater risk; lack of access to child care and quality early learning; food insecurity; and a digital divide that prevents online learning during the crisis. Schools have stepped up to provide nutritional meals, computer equipment, Internet access and cover for essential workers, but they should not bear the burden alone. Ameliorating the effects of poverty is a citywide problem and responsibility.
The federal and District governments could and should take the lead in closing these gaps, while recognizing that the quality of public education is a long-term driver of them.
Citywide solutions to the information divide — an increasingly important source of inequality — must be found so that high-speed broadband can be accessed in a usable form by residents everywhere. The rollout of 5G networks and municipal broadband elsewhere provides examples, as does the work of public charter schools in ensuring students have laptops and reliable Internet during the crisis.
The city also could do more to prioritize the education of students considered at-risk of academic underachievement by broadening the definition from those who depend on food stamps or other benefits, are homeless or in foster care or enrolled in high school below their grade level to include additional students. Under-resourced students also at risk include those experiencing mental health challenges, those learning English as a second language and children whose households lack health insurance and access to adequate health care.
Increasing the special funding weighting for at-risk students from 0.225 to 0.37 percent, as recommended by the District’s own adequacy report, would boost investment in at-risk students. So would increasing the base level of per-student funding, another unimplemented conclusion of the same study.
Allowing charter schools, which educate a higher share of at-risk students, to prioritize at-risk students in admissions also would better serve this historically underserved group, as would implementing the District’s seven-year-old adequacy report commitment to equalize funding for public charter school students in the same grade or special education level.
The tragedy of this pandemic has forced a bright light on entrenched, intergenerational inequalities and burning social injustices, creating a unique opportunity to address them.