Miami-Dade County has become the focus of national conversation due to its skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, making it a new epicenter of the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu, not just in Florida and the United States, but worldwide.
With the 2020-2021 school year rapidly approaching, Alberto Carvalho, superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools (MDCPS), the county’s largest employer and the fourth largest school district in the nation, has announced via multiple national outlets that schools will not physically reopen during Phase 1 of the county’s reopening plan – virtual learning is due to start August 31. However, Carvalho has also announced the district’s intention to revisit that plan after just one month for Phase 2, stating a possible return to in-class learning as early as October 5. That decision is a warning bell in a state where the blatant refusal to prioritize human life over capital has left us struggling to stop the surge in COVID-19 cases.
According to MDCPS’s recent “Reopening of Schools Survey,” more than 81% of our teachers either agree that the reopening of schools “can put children and others at a high risk of getting the virus,” or believe that such a reopening is a risk “because the virus can be spread without having symptoms.” These fears are well-founded, especially so for students in underserved communities, and backed by both Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data and this country’s history.
The CDC has found that hospitalization or death rates due to COVID-19 are highest in Black and Hispanic communities, as “non-Hispanic Black persons have a rate approximately five times that of non-Hispanic white persons, and Hispanic or Latino persons have a rate approximately four times that of non-Hispanic white persons.” This disparity does not stop at the likelihood of infection; it also spreads to healthcare access, paid sick leave, and overall ability to receive a COVID-19 test, posing the question: Is the reopening of schools in Phase 2 worth threatening the lives of students and equally the lives of teachers, whose voices have been virtually muted to those who wield power?
The United States has historically profited off low-income bodies as experimental frontline lab rats. The health risks of these individuals are written off as the price of economic power. Kate Moore’s book “The Radium Girls” exemplifies this American horror. During the 1920s, female watch factory employees in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Illinois contracted radiation poisoning after being told that radium was safe to use. When executives were forced to recognize the dangers of radium to their workforce, the company pointed to preexisting health conditions of the women, shifting blame from the company to the workers. Fast-forward one hundred years and Miami-Dade County teachers and students are being pushed to become the test in this COVID-19 reopening experiment.
Both cases encapsulate the powerful putting the powerless in the most unsafe of conditions and shifting the burden of responsibility onto victims when the experiment fails. In the case of our school district, this was made chillingly clear during the July 1, 2020, Special School Board meeting.
When questioned about potential liability, Dade Schools attorney Walter J. Harvey went as far as to say, “Generally, those claims are difficult to make against the school district because the COVID-19 is out in the community… I think the courts will sort of look at that and they will of course find that liability is probably not on the part of the district. Maybe individuals could have contracted it at the grocery store or some other place.”
School board leaders then unanimously voted to approve the proposed models for reopening, putting staff and students at risk while absolving the district of liability, when the only true way to be fully protected from blame – and protect the health and safety of our children, teachers, and community – is by closing the physical school doors until there is no question regarding staff or student well-being.
During the 1920s, knowledge of radium exposure and its impact on health and safety was limited, yielding catastrophic results. In 2020, though our understanding of COVID-19 and its short-and long-term effects for both adults and children may be equally narrow, our awareness of its potential for devastation tells us that we must err on the side of caution and do whatever possible to minimize its destruction. A premature reopening of our schools is not only negligent and wanton behavior, but an unnecessary and potentially devastating risk to life. We cannot, and should not, take that risk.