Brown on Business

September 21-27, 2020

Back-to-school risks puts spotlight on in-person vs. virtual teaching models


By Wesley Brown


A recent blog post by the U.S. Government Accountability Office shines a bright light on many of the discussions that communities across the country are having about returning to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


In the Aug. 11 editorial on the GAO report website, the governor watchdog agency noted that states and local governments were already grappling with how to bring K-12 students back to school safely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic – whether in person, virtually, or via a hybrid model. At the same time, several schools across the country have also closed temporarily due to hazardous conditions in their facilities that posed health and safety risks to students, teachers, and staff.


The brief one-page report further highlights three key issues that school districts needed to address to make school buildings safe and to support learning for the 2020-2021 school year.  In retrospective, the blog post looks as it was causally related to the current situation in the troubled Little Rock School District (LRSD), it is a broad snapshot of many, majority minority urban school districts across the nation.


In the first example, the GAO noted that a leaky roof or a heating and cooling system needing repair can cause indoor air quality problems and exposure to mold or asbestos, which would also put students at greater risk of catching COVID-19. Nationally, the GAO surveyed public school districts nationwide in 2019 before the pandemic and found that an estimated 36,000 needed HVAC updates – a key component to ensuring proper ventilation in a school building.


In addition to the air conditioning and plumbing issues, the GAO report also noted that high-poverty districts may be least able to afford necessary updates and repairs to their schools. In its own crunching of federal date, the GAP said it found significant differences between high-poverty and low-poverty districts in both the funding sources used and the total funds available for school facilities.


“Based on our analysis of federal data on school district construction expenditures, capital construction expenditures, on average, were about $300 less per student in high-poverty districts compared to low-poverty districts,” the GAO stated. “About 1.5 million more students attended school in high-poverty districts than low-poverty districts, yet high-poverty districts spent about $1 billion less on capital construction.”


The final point addressed in the GAP report further noted that for school districts opting for virtual instruction this fall, reliable internet access at home will be crucial. Students from lower-income households sometimes used public places like libraries and community centers to do their homework online – an option that may not be available due to COVID-19 closures and precautions.


“In 2019, we found that school-age children in lower-income households may be more likely to rely on mobile wireless service for internet access. For their higher-income counterparts, in-home, fixed, high-speed internet access was more common,” said GAO officials. “Mobile wireless can be less reliable and slower than in-home fixed service, which can make doing homework challenging. These difficulties will also disproportionately affect Black and Brown students, as roughly 80 percent of students attending low-income schools were either Black or Hispanic.”


What is amazing about the GAO report that the three risks highlighted in the report may have all played a major role in the recent quarantine of a local school since reopening of the Little Rock School District, which has been under the control of the Arkansas Department of Education since 2015.


On Sept. 8, LRSD released a statement after a staff member at Dunbar Middle School tested positive for COVID-19, the local school for mostly poor and minority students in grades 6-8 moved from in-person to virtual -instruction until Sept. 21 for the safety of the students and staff. Altogether, nine staff members and 42 students who encountered the staff member were forced to isolate at home.


According to LRSD and state Department of Health officials, students and staff would be quarantined for 14 days as the aging Dunbar Middle School undergoes deep cleaning and disinfecting during the quarantine period.


Interesting, the Dunbar Historic Neighborhood Association and other urban communities have already drawn attention to each of the issues mentioned in the recent GAO that likely were major reasons that the local middle school is susceptible to COVID-19. 


For one, Dunbar was built in 1929 well before segregation as the formerly all-black Dunbar High School and Junior College. The school, named after famed African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and served as the city’s lone high school for African American students until Horace Mann was built in 1955 to serve that purpose.


Now as magnet school for gifted and talent students, Dunbar continues to anchor the downtown community just off I-30 on Wright Avenue and is currently undergoing extension roof rehabilitation and other upgrades at a cost of more than $3.3 million, according to details from LRSD’s most recent capital improvement list. In addition, the former all-black high school recently saw upgrades of more than $300,000 to its HVAC and air conditional system, all key issues highlighted in the GAO report.


Also, the most recent Census Bureau data also points at that census tract surrounding the school has one of the highest poverty rates and the lowest availability of high-speed internet, the other two factors that put the GAO report said puts mostly poor and African American schools at risk for COVID-19.


Earlier this summer amid COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders statewide, DHNA and the nonprofit Teachable Moments held a virtual education academy for Dunbar Middle School students after the pandemic ended in-class instruction for many minority students across the city.


Brenttia Clayton, executive director of Teachable Moments’ after school and tutoring program, said low-income and minority students at Dunbar who do not have access to PPE equipment and high-speed at home are also at greater risk of catching the fast-spreading virus at school due the poor learning conditions and basic infrastructure needs.


Clayton, a local educator, and DHNA Executive Director Angel Burt said LRSD and state Department of Education officials should not return the anyone at Dunbar to in-school learning as expected on Sept. 21 unless every precaution, including those list in the GAO report, are in place to protect teachers, staff and students from COVID-19.


Others agree. On Sept. 10, the progressive Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. released a national report that explores the direct relationship between school disruptions, such as the ongoing pandemic, and student performance, equity, and U.S. education policy. EPI’s report also examines how students’ learning and development and teachers’ instruction could be dramatically affected by remote learning, which was forced upon many schools by the pandemic in March. 


One of the report co-authors, Elaine Weiss, notes that not only do lower-income families tend to have less access to internet, creating a “digital divide,” they are more likely to experience compounded stresses – such as job loss, the loss of health care, the lack of paid sick leave, the lack of child care, and the need to work on site in jobs that put them at increased health risks.


“Our education system is facing unprecedented challenges,” said Weiss. “The ultimate consequences of the pandemic for K–12 education in the United States will be a function of the quality, intensity, and comprehensiveness of our response to counter the pandemic’s negative lasting effects.”


For the children of Dunbar Middle School and others impacted by the pandemic and the ongoing struggles of LSRD, the consequences are too lasting for local and state officials not to get it right.    


  • Wesley Brown
    Wesley Brown