On March 14, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a lecture at Grosse Pointe High School he titled, “The Other America.” He chose the title because he saw America as having a kind of dualism, that every American city was two cities rather than one.
One America, King said, has material necessities for their bodies, and they have freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In the other America, according to King, “the most critical problem is the economic problem.” The Privileged America and the Other America.
Over fifty years later, we can look at Chesapeake, Virginia, the same way:
In the Privileged Chesapeake, we see citizens with material necessities, with freedom and dignity. Primarily white, middle class or upper middle class. Generally, those are the residents of Chesapeake who have been demanding schools be kept open in the face of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. Many families are throwing parties and otherwise carrying on as usual — with the exception of the face-to-face schooling to which they are accustomed.
Many residents of the Privileged Chesapeake mock COVID-19 and its risks and do not agreeably adapt their lifestyles to reduce transmission of the virus, despite knowing the multitude of threats the virus carries…perhaps because the Privileged Chesapeake, with more reliable access to health care and support than the residents of the Other Chesapeake, isn’t especially negatively affected by COVID-19.
Many of the citizens of the Privileged Chesapeake insist their children need socialization at school, their children need activities and sports, their children need face-to-face instruction, their children just cannot learn virtually. Chesapeake’s school board members seem to only represent the Privileged Chesapeake.
The Other Chesapeake is populated mostly by families who chose to keep their children fully virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Primarily working class or low income, Black, Brown, or a combination of those traits. My income keeps my family of five a few thousand dollars above the poverty line, and like so many other lower-income families, we are a multi-generational family.
Chesapeake’s school board might accommodate the Other Chesapeake, but they do not seem to represent us.
Our fears, our needs. Our expectations of being kept safe. All afterthoughts, as long as the Privileged Chesapeake is being served. Their apparent disdain for our concerns enraged me.
And then a meme came through my newsfeed the other day, and I was ashamed. It pictures an elderly black woman, rolling her eyes. The caption reads, “Chesapeake Public Schools isn’t protecting your children? Color me surprised.”
I was ashamed because my recent reality of being ignored, of being dismissed, of having no real means to protect my at-risk family from this district that is insisting on face-to-face instruction as COVID-19 numbers skyrocket, while new to me, has apparently been the reality of most of the Other Chesapeake for generations.
I was also appalled. Has the Other Chesapeake always been an afterthought? So I started looking at data, because school systems seem to love to present their data.
People of color are at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, which helps explain why so many families of color selected full-time virtual learning for their children. Further, like mine, many are multi-generational and need to protect the older members of their households.
Schools that serve students who live in the Other Chesapeake: Truitt and Crestwood Intermediate, have both had outbreaks of COVID-19. Schools populated largely by students most likely to contract COVID-19 and live in a multi-generational home, and Chesapeake Public Schools chose not to follow CDC guidelines to close those schools — or any school with an outbreak, even temporarily, to deep clean them. Why not?
It seemed to me a logical extension that the schools would be tracking racial demographics in order to better serve all students during this pandemic — gosh knows school systems track racial demographics for what seems like everything else. When I asked the school system for a racial breakdown of students who have contracted the virus, I was told there is no document I could access that summarizes the racial breakdown of our students who have contracted COVID-19.
I then asked — since so many of the Other Chesapeake’s families are fully virtual — what support Chesapeake Public Schools is offering to low income, Black and Brown, foster, non-English speaking, disabled, homeless and other students who need more support than others during the pandemic. I’ve asked that question twice. No one has responded to me.
The Other Chesapeake has families who have protected themselves as best as they can by choosing a fully virtual education. Aware of the potential sacrifices to their children’s education, socialization, athletic development — not to mention their finances, as many of those families have had to give up employment to be home with their children — those families prioritized safety. And Chesapeake Public Schools has put not a single program in place to support them?
Tell me I’m wrong, please.
Yes, students were provided Chromebooks and hot spots and free meals. But those supports are available to the students of both Chesapeakes. I wanted to see what Chesapeake Public Schools has provided for the families who live in the Other Chesapeake.
So again, I looked at data. I looked at Chesapeake’s CARES Act funds allocation. Page three of the document is a breakdown of the general areas where funds were distributed: the only segment of what could be considered serving the Other Chesapeake’s needs is that monies were distributed for activities authorized under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is federal law.
All other areas: family literacy, technical education, homeless education, “activities to address the unique needs of low income children or students, children with disabilities, English learners, racial and ethnic minorities, students experiencing homelessness, and foster care youth,” “supplemental after school programs” for the same groups…all ignored?
What Chesapeake Public Schools did spend money on, however, are items that might impress the Privileged Chesapeake. Chesapeake Public Schools purchased two $20,000 stage curtains, they spent $10,000 to renew the license for the International Baccalaureate program, and $6,000 to repair a kiln.
Furniture, teacher license renewals, Xerox products. Building safety items. And yes, the Chromebooks and hotspots that were rightfully made available to all students of Chesapeake Public Schools.
What is missing though, are the programs the Other Chesapeake needs to support themselves through this pandemic since so many students are learning virtually. Where are those programs?
Why does it look like the Other Chesapeake is left to fend for themselves while the Privileged Chesapeake is being served in ways that put staff and students at risk?
The only answers I can come up with horrify me. But since no one from Chesapeake Public Schools has responded to me, perhaps — and I hope this is the case — I am entirely wrong.
Board member Christie New Craig’s support for racist ideals is no secret…well, her propensity for posting memes that many consider racist or xenophobic is no secret.
It’s not only that Christie New Craig is a stain on Chesapeake’s school board, though. The members almost always vote unanimously. So is the board, then, a stain on the city of Chesapeake, Virginia?
In July, President Trump tweeted that he was “happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.”
In other words, President Trump assured the Privileged America that the Other America will be kept out of their sight.
Just the other day, Board Member Craig publicly posted thanks to people on their way to Washington, DC, for the rally-turned-insurrection.
Chesapeake, Virginia might exemplify the duality Dr. King identified and President Trump confirmed, but no citizen of Chesapeake benefits from it.
Employees of Chesapeake Public Schools have been told that if they are scared of contracting COVID-19 or don’t like the board’s policy, they can quit. Find a new job. Their stance is enthusiastically and vocally supported by many in the Privileged Chesapeake.
In fact, a Chesapeake Public Schools security guard posted on one teacher’s Facebook page that “teachers who just don’t want to do your jobs — get the fuck out and find something better, if you can. However, you will not because you cannot.”
The security guard is wrong, of course; staff are getting out, in droves.
One beloved teacher’s last day is Friday. Across the district, several staff members resigned and retired over winter break. The exodus began last summer; now, almost every teacher I know is actively searching to leave Chesapeake Public Schools. Since the school board won’t protect staff by allowing them to work virtually, staff are doing the best they can to protect themselves.
But most staff are more mobile than many families in the Other Chesapeake.
The families who make up the Other Chesapeake deserve better. And on a basic, fundamental level, they need better. Every single student enrolled in Chesapeake Pubic Schools deserves the very best the system has to give. Every single one.
If Chesapeake’s school board is going to continue on what appears to be its habitual path of prioritizing the Privileged Chesapeake, the only way to ensure students of the Other Chesapeake will have opportunities to thrive is by replacing our current school board with members who care equally about all of Chesapeake’s families.
Our best opportunity to start that change is in 2022, when five of the nine sitting school board members are up for re-election.
So much thanks to the Black women who patiently helped me navigate issues of race: Cerise Canzius, Elizabeth Joy Gavin, and a very special friend and her mom.
I also owe thanks to several women of color who chose to educate their children virtually and volunteered to share the reasons for their choices with me.