Dr. Uché Blackstock is the parent of two school-age children in New York City. A certified emergency-medicine physician, she worked in urgent-care clinics in Brooklyn during the rise of COVID-19. Her children, now 5 and 7, learned remotely in the spring of 2020, but have attended their Brooklyn school fulltime, in person, since the fall of 2020 because their school offered that option for the children of essential workers. Dr. Blackstock is now the CEO of Advancing Healthcare Equity, a company she co-founded to address racial disparities in health care. She talked with EdWeek about how those disparities play out in education, and how schools can build trust with parents and protect all students as masks become optional. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How the pandemic plays out for different families is complex. I do think that there is a socioeconomic component to it. I found that the families in our school who chose hybrid versus remote were white families or more-affluent Black families. More lower-income Black families chose remote.
It’s an issue of trusting social institutions like schools or the educational system. If you talk to parents from low-income Black communities, I think they will say, ‘I don’t think that the schools are on our side.’ We talk about medical mistrust or institutional mistrust. I actually turn it around and say, it’s more institutional untrustworthiness, that these systems have proven untrustworthy to certain communities. They have to earn the trust of communities.
Some families did not trust that the schools were going to keep their kids safe, because they had experience with schools. More-affluent Black families and white families had the privilege of not feeling that fear, of having more trust, and saying, I feel OK about sending my kid to school.
It’s interesting for me, because my mother grew up in poverty, 15 minutes from here in Brooklyn. She was the first person in her family to go to college. She ended up at Harvard Medical School, and my twin sister and I are second-generation physicians. We’re the first Black mother-daughter legacy from Harvard Medical School.
So I feel like I understand and have an appreciation for her upbringing. She shared a lot with us about what it was like not to have. I know that we have to think about how institutions have interacted with communities, and how that has influenced parents’ decisions about sending their children to school in the pandemic.
I felt enough trust to send my kids to school because both the assistant principal and the principal are Black women who are incredible leaders. They were very transparent about what the process was going to be to keep the kids safe. We had town halls starting from the summer of 2020 that were like two hours long on Zoom: These are the layers that we’re going to put in place to make sure your children are safe. And here’s another hour where we can answer your questions. And we’re going to have another town hall, and another town hall. They were always available and accessible.
And—I get emotional thinking about this—but I feel like they see our children as their own children. If anyone’s going to take care of my babies, these women are going to make sure my babies are safe. Every parent should be able to feel that way. It’s unfortunate that it depends on school leadership. It depends on actually who your principal is, or who the staff are, that determines how protected your children are going to be. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.
Principals: reach out to parents
We need to make sure that school leaders are communicating, encouraging everyone to wear their masks to school, because there’s still so much uncertainty. We don’t know when the next surge is going to be, and the transmission levels are still high. We have to worry about people who are immunocompromised, and we may not know who they are.
My children’s school gave us rapid tests for the kids to take before they came back from break. I think that is really important, to make sure all kids in public schools have access to that. And I still would encourage investing in ventilation and air filtration infrastructure.
The principal could also communicate with the school community, saying, if you’re a parent and you’re especially concerned about your child’s health and what these mask rules may mean, come talk to me and we can figure out what to do. It’s going to be individualized. There should be options for those families or staff that are vulnerable.
I was shocked by [New York City] Mayor Eric Adams’ decision to lift the mask mandate in schools. There’s so much variability in vaccination rates within schools, within communities and neighborhoods. There are some schools where the vaccination rate is only in the 30s. And those are likely to be the same schools that have overcrowded classrooms, that don’t have adequate ventilation or air filtration infrastructures. And we’re telling them they can take off their masks. I think it’s too soon.
[Federal guidance on masking is shifting toward] a very individual personal-responsibility-focused messaging. And in the CDC’s most recent guidelines, we’re seeing that even more: that it’s not about the collective response, it’s more about what individuals do. And if you’re high risk, then you should protect yourself, but if you’re a healthy person, with a healthy immune system, then you can basically do what you want. And I honestly think it’s unconscionable. I know that’s a strong word, but the very foundation of public health is a collective response.
When you have a respiratory virus like this one, we know that all of these mitigation strategies are more effective when everyone is doing them. So I’m horrified that these COVID protections are being lifted so quickly. One, because there’s no plan for when we might reinstate them, and two, what are we going to do to protect people, especially the most vulnerable: the elderly, the immunocompromised, unvaccinated children. There’s no plan.