With thirteen more counties just bumped into the red and orange tiers, the reopening of more California schools is fast becoming a reality. California’s legislators and governor agreed to a deal to reopen more schools by April. New CDC guidelines advised that elementary school kids only need to distance at three feet. However, there are conflicting messages and scientific evidence. The U.S. has surpassed 550,000 COVID-19 deaths, the CDC is warning of new variants, a fourth surge and Biden is urging a slowing of state reopening plans. As the state with the largest K-12 population, I am concerned about California legislators and school administrators pushing to reopen more schools. 

Using incentive funds and deadlines has the potential to create dangerous consequences for K-12 educators and children. As a parent of an elementary school-aged child, the spouse of a K-12 educator, and a professor at a large public university in the Silicon Valley, I’m worried that schools are scrambling to reopen to take advantage of funding without the proper planning and precautions in place. 

Some have framed the reopening of schools as shaped by a wealth divide, where wealthy schools have the simple advantage of opening earlier than less resourced schools. This is indeed part of the problem. However, as a scholar of race and inequality, I urge us to think about the intersection of race, class, political affiliations and power. The key issue is that the interests of lower income and communities of color, those most vulnerable to COVID-19, are often not being recognized. 

A worrisome scenario exists where racial and economic privilege combine in well-off districts, many of which are largely white, but still serve students from vulnerable communities. Superintendents in such districts may have tended to downplay COVID as a serious threat, or powerful school boards and entitled parents clashed with smaller teacher unions that did not have enough power to demand vaccinations and other precautionary measures. The Pew Research Center released data that show white, upper income and Republican adults were more likely to urge for reopening schools despite teacher’s concerns about safety. 

For example, administrators in wealthy districts like Palo Alto Unified lacked serious regard for the “comfort,” health, working conditions, and lives of their employees, the majority of whom did not feel it’s safe to return. The district opened riskier middle and high schools in early March once the county moved back into the red tier, well before teachers could be fully vaccinated. Now that we are in the orange tier, they are allowing kids to go off campus for lunch. Yet, high schools are estimated to be 5 to 10 times more likely to spread COVID than elementary schools.

A worrisome scenario exists where racial and economic privilege combine in well-off districts, many of which are largely white, but still serve students from vulnerable communities.

Moreover, the district also serves students in East Palo Alto, a largely Latinx and Black community that is on the front lines of low-wage work and has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 and lowest vaccination rates in the county. The Latinx community in California has a disproportionately high death rate among working-age individuals. I fear that those voices are being ignored. 

Another dangerous consequence of this funding is that it may entice administrators at already under-resourced schools to take advantage of these funds without all of the proper precautions in place. Because of systemic and structural racism, these schools are more likely to serve Black and Latinx students, other communities of color and vulnerable populations that have also been experiencing higher COVID infection rates. Many in these communities already have less access to healthcare and other resources that make navigating the potential ripple effects of infection and quarantine that can be sparked by many students returning to school at once. Many parents in these districts see the risk of reopening too soon and do not want their children to return without better safety measures. 

The Pew survey confirms that adults of color, lower and middle income individuals, and Democrats are more likely to support waiting to reopen. We see a similar pattern in Oakland Unified School District, where white parents showed the most desire to return to in-person learning, with Black, Latinx, and Asian parents less likely to want to reopen schools. In my child’s own district, the majority Latinx and Asian parent population was urging administrators to keep schools closed or to at least wait until teachers were fully vaccinated, while more privileged white parents were pushing to reopen quickly. At our school board meetings, there was a vocal contingent of the latter blaming ‘lazy’ teachers and unions for the extended closure.

But teachers and others well-versed in the effects of chronic disinvestment in public education know that two months of haphazardly planned school and upset routines are not going to recover the year of lost learning so many are claiming. It simply will reinforce more structural racism, as the Los Angeles teacher union argued in response to the state’s reopening plan. In the long run, there is more benefit in waiting to complete the semester, and use the summer to reach higher vaccination levels, and install essential infrastructure in schools to keep teachers, children, and their families safe. 

We should not open ourselves up for rebounds in infectious cases, which would threaten to close schools yet again. 

The lives of California’s over 6,000,000 students and 360,000 teachers plus elders, immune-compromised, and other loved ones are at risk. 

Faustina M. DuCros is an associate professor of sociology at San José State University, a scholar of race and racial inequality, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.