Leaders playing politics with students’ health and education

Across the country, students are embarking on what is certain to be a third consecutive academic year that is compromised or disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

While this is unfortunate for all students, it’s especially dire for students of color and low-income students, who experienced the steepest setbacks as a result of interrupted instruction. 

Mask mandate bans

To make matters worse, students are being used as pawns by politicians more concerned with signifying partisan loyalty than with the health and education of public-school children.   Twenty states have prohibited proof-of vaccination requirements.  

At least eight states—Florida, Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah—have imposed bans on school districts requiring masks. Florida and Arizona have gone so far as to threaten to withhold funding from districts that impose mask mandates. 

As U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has pointed out, these policies represent discrimination against students who cannot attend school because of the risk to their health.  

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is preparing to launch investigations into states that block mask mandates – a move the National Urban League emphatically supports.

Another school year threatened

It’s appropriate that Secretary Cardona recognizes pandemic-related educational disruption as a civil rights issue.  

As I testified earlier this year to the House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Early Childhood Elementary and Secondary Education, Black children are more likely than their white counterparts to lack the internet access and the devices necessary to receive adequate remote instruction.

This “homework gap” affects one in three Black, Latino, and American Indian Alaska Native students. 

Children of color disadvantaged

The effects on inequality have been stark.  Research released last month  showed students in majority Black or Hispanic schools ended the school year six months behind where they normally would have been in math, compared with four months for white students.  

Students in low-income schools were seven months behind. 

“Put simply, the students who could least afford to lose ground relative to other students are those who were the most impacted,” wrote the authors of a similar report that reached the same conclusions. 

The educational research organization  NWEA, which produced the report, offered several policy recommendations to support students’ health and wellbeing while at the same time expanding access to excellent educational opportunities.

None of these goals are served by endangering the health and safety of students and their families with anti-mask and anti-vaccine policies, or by inviting even more learning interruption by withholding school funding.

These misguided, politically motivated and racially discriminatory policies can only serve to widen the already-alarming racial achievement gaps.

The National Urban League and our network of 91 affiliates across the country stand ready to work with states and school districts on policies that uplift all students and expand educational opportunities for everyone.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.

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