Many educators and researchers approach the relationship between education and health as a linear one, where greater academic attainment leads to better student health (mental, physical and emotional well-being) and wellness (living a healthy lifestyle) over time. Get good grades and, the thinking goes, you’ll be happier and healthier. This thinking fuels an emphasis on addressing “learning loss” as a result of the pandemic. Others take the opposite view with health as the predicate, arguing that poorer health constrains educational attainment. But it’s not that simple. Serving Black students well means educators must realize that schools are sources of both opportunity and inequity and influencers of health and wellness. Educators must place Black students’ health and wellness at the top of their list of educational priorities.
American history, and the country’s treatment of Black people in particular, must inform how we think about and serve Black students. As a system of advantage and oppression based on race, racism shapes patterns of access to employment, housing, health care, and education going back hundreds of years, despite good intentions. That’s why research demonstrates that the education-health link is more pronounced for Black students than for white students. Racism drives social determinants of health, and more than 50 municipalities across the U.S. now classify it as a public health crisis.
How is this history present today? Here are three examples of how racism influences Black students’ school experiences and health outcomes right now.
- Second, Black students in low-income communities are more likely to be exposed to poor school building conditions such as improper ventilation and mold growth due to longstanding and widespread funding inequities. These environmental concerns impact short- and long-term health outcomes like asthma and respiratory infections. Nationally, youth in Black households are 1.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with asthma as white youth and more than 3 times as likely to have an asthma-related emergency room visit, though higher income and educational attainment do reduce these disparities. Given the airborne transmissibility of COVID-19, poor building conditions like those mentioned above put Black students at further risk.
Inequitable funding, decrepit school facilities, and discipline policies that disproportionately target Black students and perpetuate racial inequity aren’t abstract and they aren’t history—they fall upon the bodies of Black students sitting in classrooms every day, with visceral impacts on their health and wellness. That’s why doubling down on a well-intentioned, yet oversimplified, formula of focusing overwhelmingly on learning and achievement outcomes in response to the pandemic among Black student populations is the wrong approach.
Instead, educators must acknowledge the full humanity of Black students by redirecting resources to improve the educational conditions that impact Black student health and wellness, first and foremost.