By Lisa Moomaw (Tulane University), OPEN Intern
COVID-19 has shaken New Orleans as it moves towards becoming the epicenter of the outbreak. Governor John Bel Edwards announced that Louisiana schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Thousands of workers in Louisiana have lost their jobs and New Orleans now has the highest coronavirus death rate in the nation. Because of these realities, racial and socioeconomic inequities that already existed have been exaggerated by COVID-19’s impact. The New Orleans community has been organizing in response by pressing for change with even greater urgency because COVID-19 is already having a disproportionate impact on certain groups.
The Digital Divide
In New Orleans, nearly a third of households do not have internet at home, and 21% of people do not have a computer. Low income households are far more likely to lack proper internet access than their wealthier counterparts. Digital equity had already been a concern of the Cantrell administration but now with the majority of schools moving to online learning and over 80% of the public school population considered “economically disadvantaged” the need for equitable and affordable internet access is even more pronounced. NOLA Public Schools purchased 5,000 internet hotspots to give to families without internet at home, and internet providers including AT&T, Cox Connect2Compete, and CenturyLink are allowing low-income families to apply for discounted monthly internet access.
Working families across Louisiana rely on affordable childcare to keep their jobs and provide their children with a safe environment. In fact, the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children (LPIC) found before the outbreak of COVID-19 that one in six workers with young children have had to quit a job because of issues with childcare. The outbreak of COVID-19 has forced 60 % of childcare centers to close, and LPIC reports that 33% of centers may have to permanently close if shelter-in-place orders continue. Because of the impact this will have on working families and childcare workers, LPIC has called for state and local governments to support childcare centers in reopening through loans, unemployment benefits, and regulatory relief. The Louisiana Department of Education has opened subsidized childcare for essential personnel, but long term solutions are still needed. Additionally, legislation that supports early childcare will be more important than ever. HB 251, which recreates the Early Childcare Commission, will be an important bill to support this session. Further information about early childcare during COVID-19 is available at https://www.policyinstitutela.org/covid-19.
Special Education and Disability Rights
Students with disabilities make up 11% of New Orleans public school students. Many students with special needs receive services and support in order to access education. However, the US Department of Education has clarified that schools are not required to provide special education services while schools are closed. The Louisiana Department of Education released a toolkit on supporting students with special needs through distance learning that includes information about accommodations and accessibility, but guidelines remain vague overall. Without proper accommodations, students with disabilities and students who use special education services may not receive an equal or appropriate education.
Data has already shown that Black people are experiencing shockingly disproportionate death rates due to COVID-19. The Data Center found that 70% of Louisianians who have died from the coronavirus are Black, even though only a third of Louisiana’s population is Black. This is rooted in the health disparities that were already in place before the onset of COVID-19: Black Louisianians have significantly higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and poverty than their white counterparts, all of which lead to higher death rates from COVID-19. Additionally, racism within systems of housing, jobs, income, education and more means Black New Orleanians are more likely to have poorer health outcomes and receive a lower quality of care. Clearly, COVID-19 is only exploiting pre-existing gaps, and its effects on Black communities throughout the state will inevitably find their way into schools when students return in the Fall. Black and low-income students will be more likely to have been exposed to the trauma of serious illness or death in their families, which is why trauma-informed legislation will continue to be important. SB 340, which pilots mental health screening for students, SB 290 and SB 291, which support school counseling programs, and HB 663, which proposes screening students for trauma when considering disciplinary options will all be bills to watch this legislative session.
In 2018, 31% of children in Louisiana lived in cost-burdened households, where housing costs account for 30% or more of their expenses. With unemployment skyrocketing due to COVID-19, it’s likely that more children than ever will face housing insecurity. Students whose families lack affordable housing can afford less resources needed for school and often move frequently, which is disruptive to their education. The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA) and Housing NOLA are advocating for rental assistance from the city and state, placement of families on the waiting list for housing vouchers in unoccupied homes, emergency funding in the Louisiana Housing Trust Fund, and for housing to be included in the US Congress’s emergency funding plan. Additionally, the Power Coalition has also called for the suspension of evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs. All of these measures aim to ensure affordable housing during the pandemic, at a time when housing has become quite literally a matter of life or death.
60% of Louisiana students qualify for free or reduced lunch. In a nationwide survey, nearly half of low-income students said that hunger negatively impacts their learning, reminding us that food security is essential for kids to learn whether at school or home. During school closures, meal services have continued with 45 schools, businesses and NORDC sites across the city distributing breakfast and lunch to children 18 years old or younger attending a public school and students with special needs attending a public school through age 22. Families can pick up several meals at a time twice per week at any location even if their child is not enrolled at that particular school site. Additionally, mutual aid societies such as the New Orleans Mutual Aid Society are offering resources to those in need. Information about these groups is available here.
Incarceration and Detention
Louisiana is known for its higher-than-average detention and incarceration rates, which make social distancing essentially impossible for people in prisons and makes incarcerated individuals extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. 150,000 Louisiana children have a parent who is incarcerated, putting them at risk of losing a family member due to COVID-19. Additionally, detained or incarcerated youth are at risk, with 9 detained children already having tested positive for the virus. With this in mind, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights published a letter to juvenile justice stakeholders in Louisiana, including Governor John Bel Edwards, asking to greatly reduce the number of youth being held in detention centers by releasing those being held for nonviolent crimes and those who have served the majority of their sentences. Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) also has created a petition for citizen advocates to sign calling for people to spread awareness of the dangers facing incarcerated youth and individuals. COVID-19 has also drawn increased attention to the importance of reducing incarceration rates overall, in which advocates throughout the state have been working on for years. This legislative session included HB 173– a proposal to increase parole eligibility for juveniles. On the other hand, bills like HB 64 and HB 250 would both increase the incarceration of juveniles, showing that more work is required to stop our over reliance on incarceration to solve our social, economic and community health problems. For more information on COVID-19 cases for those kept in incarceration facilities check out https://covid19behindbars.com/
LGBTQ+ individuals may be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 because of the health disparities and job discrimination that they experience. LGBTQ+ individuals who lose their jobs during the pandemic may find it hard to find work. Additionally, LGBTQ+ children are finding themselves quarantined at home, where they may be stuck in households that do not accept them and without access to resources and support. The TGNC Funding Circle is a mutual aid organization supporting trans and gender non-conforming individuals. You can learn more about or donate to their fundraiser supporting trans and gender non-conforming people through financial challenges caused by COVID-19 here. In the wake of COVID-19, supporting LGBTQ+ students will continue to be important. HB 466 and SB 172, which ban transgender students from playing school sports, are bills that would enable transphobia in schools and directly hurt the LGBTQ+ student and youth community.