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How educators are helping communities of color hit harder by the virus

Rori Abernethy at Denman Middle School graduation with several students, who are from Georgia (Eastern Europe), Samoa and East Oakland.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed classrooms in California in mid-March, Rori Abernethy, like many educators, was concerned that schools wouldn’t be able to remain connected with all students. She was disturbed to hear that administrators at various school sites did not have current phone numbers for their students, particularly those whose family or living situations are challenging or who have issues around attendance. Many of these are students of color.

“It shocked me that schools didn’t know kids’ contact info,” says Abernethy, a member of both the San Francisco Alliance of Black Educators and United Educators of San Francisco, and math teacher at Denman Middle School. “If you know these kids have a problem, you make sure you get their number. Every single kid, even if their parent changes phones all the time or is living somewhere else, has a number. You have to ask them.” She notes that Denman administrators, counselors and paraprofessionals did wellness checks on students long before San Francisco Unified asked. But she knows the African American and Latinx communities have been hit hard by COVID-19, both medically and economically, and many of her students are coping with even more difficulties than usual. Like her fellow educators around the country, she’s doing her best to keep students learning.

Preexisting condition: structural racism

Racial and socioeconomic disparities have been thrown into stark relief as a result of COVID-19. People of color and those with low income are coping with economic hardship, limited access to health care, and slow internet or lack of internet access at home, among other things.

These disparities have existed for years, harming our students, and continue to harm them today.

“Here’s the reality,” said NEA Vice President Becky Pringle at a virtual town hall in April. “Structural racism [is] the preexisting condition that [has] destined us to be where we are — where our communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. We shouldn’t be shocked.”

Nationally and statewide, growing data reflects the unequal impact COVID-19 is having on communities of color, especially among African Americans. According to data compiled in May by APM Research Lab, African Americans collectively represent 13 percent of the population in all areas of America releasing mortality data that includes race and ethnicity, but have suffered 27 percent of deaths. While Latino Americans fare better overall, in certain states their COVID-19 deaths are also disproportionate to their share of the population.

The toll is not only sickness and death. The devastation exacted by lost or reduced jobs and salaries and the resulting housing and food instability, as well as students’ difficulties accessing needed resources to learn, greatly expands the number of people affected.

“We are going to be in distance learning in the fall. You have to have something where a kid can walk in with issues, but they can put in significant time and work and still pass.”

Rori Abernethy, United Educators of San Francisco

Pringle emphasized that while educators and their unions have focused on the “right now” to keep students safe and keep them learning, the education community must use this experience to help build a future that is equitable and fair, “where all of our students, every one of them, have access and opportunity.”

Educators reach students where they are

Rori Abernethy’s experience teaching 13 years in Oakland unexpectedly prepared her to teach during the pandemic. “I had lots of kids who missed a lot of school,” she says. “They had family problems — their parents lost their jobs, or somebody died, or they’re the family provider and have to work. Or they got involved in criminal activities and went to jail. In Oakland especially, teachers deal with a lot more trauma. You see the impact of someone who did not get their high school diploma — they have no job, they get involved in things outside of the law. I had to think: Am I really going to fail students because they did not fit into my program?”

Instead, Abernethy developed ways to make sure students dealing with such trauma were still getting an education and still passing all-important standardized tests.

“I gave them projects they could do on their own, that were comprehensive and rigorous,” she says. “I even kept the stuff done by kids who went to jail. When they got out I told them, ‘If you want to graduate, you need to do projects for the unit you missed to get a passing grade.’ They did the work because it was doable.”

She refused to pass students without evidence that they could move on successfully, but she never failed a single graduating senior in 10 years teaching high school.

This approach also worked for her high-performing students, who needed challenging assignments to push them and keep them engaged. She is working to develop many of these strategies for her students now dealing with the impact of COVID-19 and distance learning.

“If you weren’t having these conversations before COVID, it’s super hard to do now,” Abernethy says. “We are going to be in distance learning in the fall. You have to have something where a kid can walk in with issues, but they can put in significant time and work and still pass. It’s unfair, with all they have to do to make it to school, not to give them the option to get their diploma.”

“We have to think as we, not me. We are the community.”

—Ramona Rocha, Inglewood Teachers Association

Making sure digital needs are met is essential. At Denman, UESF members Mark Aquino and Bryan Yarrington helped ensure students’ online access several years ago. (Aquino is now at a high school in San Francisco.) Denman is a Verizon Innovative Learning School, so each student is issued an iPad.

Communication remains key. Abernethy says one tactic that helped keep her Oakland students on track, especially the “outliers” who were veering off track, was the “daily update,” where she texted parents their child’s highs and lows, both positives and negatives, every day, to encourage them to straighten up.

She was ecstatic when one of her former students recently sent a note to tell her he had been admitted to Stanford University this fall, thanking her “for the strong educational foundation you gave me in middle school.”

In the end, she says, parents and guardians’ desire for a good education for their children transcends all other boundaries. “All the families I talk to want the same thing for their kids.”

Food distribution at Hudnall Elementary.

‘We are the community’

Since the school closures, Ramona Rocha, a preschool teacher and member of Inglewood Teachers Association (ITA), has been at Hudnall Elementary School every Wednesday to help hand out fresh produce, canned goods and other foodstuffs to the 400 to 500 families in line. Inglewood School District is 56 percent Latinx and 40 percent African American.

“The majority of parents at this low-income school are Spanish speakers and don’t have a job, don’t know how to pay bills,” says “Ms. Mona,” as Rocha is known.

Other educators have been pitching in as well. A recent news story followed a day in the life of Aba Ngissah, sixth grade teacher at Hudnall and ITA president. In the morning, she packed bag lunches for students, then handed out laptops. In the afternoon, she went home to teach class, and between instruction and answering individual questions via text she didn’t finish till late in the evening.

“Structural racism is the preexisting condition that has destined us to be where we are — where our communities of color are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.”

—NEA Vice President Becky Pringle

Ngissah spent nearly a month tracking down her 35 students, helping them log on, reset passwords, and access the internet. Almost all of them are now doing schoolwork; she knows the others have too much going on in their lives. “It’s not like they don’t want to,” she says. “People are dealing with stuff.” Ngissah and other teachers and staff members help with this, too. They use their own money to buy food and other needed supplies for families. Ms. Mona’s preschool class has 24 children, and while she is not teaching them right now, she is in frequent contact with students and families.

“I give parents strategies for teaching ABCs and numbers,” Rocha says. “I tell them how to make ‘Play-Doh,’ and how to use shaving cream to develop kids’ fine motor skills — it doesn’t cost much, and they can use it to write, make shapes, talk about language and science. I make copies of worksheets and drive to meet them. Many parents don’t drive or have technology. I ask if they need food and tell them where to go for CalFresh or to get help to pay their bills.”

For those who need clothing, Rocha is a primary source. “If parents need clothes, I have stuff I’m not using. I have grandkids, so if children need clothing or shoes, I take it directly to families.”

“All the families I talk to want the same thing for their kids.”

—Rori Abernethy, United Educators of San Francisco

Rocha’s desire to help extends well beyond her immediate family of eight children and eight grandchildren. On weekends, she’s a home care worker for seniors. “We have to think as we, not me,” she explains. “We are the community.”

Brenda Alvarez contributed to this story.