Last week’s narrow vote by Fort Worth’s school board to re-open schools to in-person learning stands in sharp contrast to the school district’s professed commitment to racial equity.
As a scholar of race, a parent of Fort Worth ISD kids, a spouse of a school district educator, and a member of the district’s Racial Equity Committee, I remain very skeptical that schools can be reopened safely now or perhaps at any point this year. Much of the district staff’s planning has struck me as magical thinking, at best — or, in other moments, as outright lies.
From my personal vantage points, I know that schools before COVID lacked many of the basics needed for a safe and functional educational environment. Even the “best” schools on the West Side suffered from broken human social systems and lacked basic physical resources. There were never enough adults in the building and never enough substitutes available to fill in (and teacher absenteeism will only rise now). Teachers had time only for a few minutes of before- or after-school supervision or lunch duty. Bus drivers were underpaid and poorly managed. Hallways were crowded and chaotic. At my kids’ school, the bathrooms were often dirty, and they rarely had soap. This was all before the shutdown. How can we expect such a dramatic turnaround now, after little or no systemic work on such gaps over the summer and with frontline staff and faculty morale at an all-time low?
In addition to these practical concerns, there are also myriad ethical arguments regarding racial equity. First, inequity existed before COVID and will persist after it’s over, but it’s clear that the district is now doing more than ever to address some basic issues such as access to technology (e.g., the widespread distribution of Chromebooks and hot spots) and social-emotional well-being. (Social workers and mental health specialists have begun making front-porch home visits, for example, that never took place before the pandemic.)
Second, we know that COVID disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities and that our district is composed of about 90% Black and Brown students. These students are more likely than whites to live in multigenerational families with vulnerable members. There are also a growing number of Black and Latinx teachers and school employees — the precise people the district seeks to recruit, retain, and advance in FWISD — who are also parents and members of multigenerational families.
Putting them back to school and work promises to turn the terrible inconvenience and tragedy of COVID so far into a full-blown humanitarian disaster.
Last, but certainly not least, the district’s default decision-making processes have long prioritized the needs of wealthy white families (a tiny percentage of the district) over the voices of the massive Black and Brown super-majority, and the current moment promises to exacerbate this trend. Like the larger phenomenon of whiteness, this pattern is often invisible, and it often creeps up without warning. It extends far beyond the board to inform the decisions of executive staff members starting with the superintendent on down to middle managers and even teachers on campuses.
But the bottom line is that the demands for “rigor” and “choice” and now “in-person” activities from the ultra-privileged have a habit of steamrolling other voices and our collective conversations on equity. We saw this in the more distant past with the establishment of magnet schools as an alternative to white flight amid the integration of neighborhood schools, and we saw it earlier this year when the boundary revision discussion rendered equity an afterthought rather than a centerpiece of more sweeping change. We see it now when wealthy white folks demand in-person learning, no matter the cost to marginalized students and all teachers (and their families).
The folks in Tanglewood, Benbrook, and — worse — those who have already abandoned FWISD are insulated from the full effects of COVID. They have health insurance. Consider that for a moment. Tens of thousands of FWISD families do not have any health insurance and will not be able to afford treatment if someone gets sick. The ultra-privileged also often have the means to pay for medical treatment, room to isolate at home if someone gets sick, and the ability to work from home and to hire housekeepers, tutors, nannies, and gardeners to do their dirty work. They can also afford to go out to restaurants and bars, to continue expensive club sports, and to engage in a wide range of risky activities that endanger not only themselves but also the rest of us. They are representative of nobody but themselves. And they are used to getting whatever they want, whenever they want. We must end this pattern if we wish to achieve equity in our district.
Worse than their unacknowledged privilege is the other side’s dripping paternalism and, yes, racism toward Black and Brown families. They have taken the few instances of domestic abuse (not a new phenomenon) and concluded that Black and Brown kids are safer in unsanitary schools (see: above) than they are with their own extended families, the precise social networks that have allowed them to survive institutional racism for the past century or more.
The other side posits without subtlety that Black and Brown kids are essentially neglected, but their real motivation is more sinister. Like Mayor Betsy Price, they need the schools to open so that they can go back to their own jobs and hobbies, so that their own employees have free state-supported childcare. They really don’t care how many teachers and Black and Brown families they infect or kill to get the economy running again — to restore their profit margins to pre-COVID levels.
But let’s be clear: It is not the job of schools — and certainly not equity-minded school leaders — to provide unsafe childcare to Black and Brown families so that white people can profit.
The other side also makes a series of baseless arguments about the public health situation. They cite statistics of child infection and mortality rates that are woefully inadequate. To be sure, younger kids have gotten COVID and suffered its consequence at a lesser rate when compared to adults, but that’s only a correlation: Younger also means less sick. One indisputable cause of these lower rates is that kids have stayed home since March, thereby lessening the chances that they would come into contact with the virus. Put another way, the other side misunderstands cause and effect — or in scholarly terms, they conflate causation and correlation. They also ignore Tarrant County’s School Re-Opening Dashboard, which currently displays red for the entire square, thus recommending virtual learning for all students county-wide. And it’s worth remembering that, despite the last few weeks with downward trends, the number of new cases right now still exceeds the rates that closed schools into June.
Proponents of in-person schooling argue that they deserve a choice, and they note that parents who wish to keep their kids in virtual classrooms will maintain that option under the re-opening plan. Yet this argument fails to recognize that public health is, by definition, a collective good and that individuals who choose risky behaviors endanger everyone else. Like it or not, we are all in this together. School leaders must create a uniform policy that protects all of its students rather than allowing a handful of parents who are the loudest and have the most resources to do whatever they want regardless of the consequences for teachers, janitors, and other, often already marginalized students.
For practical, ethical, and statistical reasons, we need to delay in-person learning as long as we can for the benefit of all people in our community. The Fort Worth school district may even need to take the fight to the state, rather than operating within the ideological constraints imposed by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the state’s criminal attorney general.
At the very least, Fort Worth ISD should request a waiver from the state and push back the start date as far as possible. In my view, this is the only way for members of the school board to vote if they are truly in favor of racial equity.
The school board will re-examine the situation tonight/Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will be held via webinar due to COVID-19 concerns. Watch on Spectrum Channel 192 or Fort Worth ISD’s YouTube channel or by using this link (passcode: 379314). To comment publicly, call 817-814-1956 to register anytime before the meeting.
Max Krochmal is Associate Professor of History at Texas Christian University, where he also co-founded the Department of Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies. He serves as a volunteer co-chair of the FWISD Board-appointed Racial Equity Committee.