As schools open in Hillsborough, leaders say COVID-19 poses heightened threat to Hispanic community

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Janet Cruz arming teachers
Janet Cruz. WMNF News file photo by Janelle Irwin.

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As students in Hillsborough County return to classrooms Monday, some local leaders fear it might be more than books they bring home with them.

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Sen. Janet Cruz, Rep. Susan Valdes and Hillsborough School Board member Karen Perez held a news conference over Zoom Monday morning to discuss the risks Hispanic families face as schools reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Explain to me how we cannot even control an outbreak of lice in our schools, but we’re going to try to control an outbreak of COVID,” Cruz said. “I just don’t believe it will happen.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hispanics and Latinos are almost five-times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 complications than their  non-Hispanic white counterparts. CDC data also shows Hispanics account for nearly a quarter of COVID-19 deaths in the United States, with disproportionate stats among children continuing to increase, according to Tampa General Hospital’s Dr. Jason Wilson.

“Hispanic kids are eight times more likely to be hospitalized than their white counterparts,” he said.

Valdes added that COVID-19 poses a greater risk to Hispanic populations than white counter parts because a greater number of Hispanics work jobs considered essential that can’t be done remotely, including within the school district as custodial staff, bus drivers and other support positions.

“Explain to me how we cannot even control an outbreak of lice in our schools, but we’re going to try to control an outbreak of COVID. I just don’t believe it will happen.”

Senator Janet Cruz

Additionally, Hispanic communities often have multi-generational homes where an asymptomatic child could transmit COVID-19 to an at-risk relative, which poses additional risks.

“Children could be completely asymptomatic but still carry home with them a disease they caught in a crowded classroom,” Valdes said. “No child should have to go to school every day worried they will bring home a fatal disease to a loved one.”

Last Friday, the Hillsborough County School Board reversed its decision to delay in-person learning by four weeks, opting instead to return students to classrooms after just one week of virtual learning. Perez was one of only two board members who voted against reopening. 

Perez said she felt the plan presented didn’t go far enough to outline specific procedures to keep children, families and staff safe from an outbreak.

“Opening brick and mortar without a complete plan is a disservice to not just the students, but those who serve the students,” she said,

Now that schools have opened, Cruz said the mission has become educating children and families on the importance of following CDC guidelines and making sure educational materials can break through any language barriers. But with families and children facing exposure every day, she said the fight won’t be easy.

“The odds,” Cruz said, “are stacked against us.”

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