By Aldon Thomas Stiles, California Black Media
On Aug. 3 in Perris, California – A Riverside County city located about 70 miles east of Los Angeles — Lincoln Cooper and Fortunate Hove Cooper handed out free backpacks full of school supplies and hand sanitizers to struggling families during a triple-digit heat wave. They were joined by a handful of volunteers that included representatives from the Moreno Valley School District.
“This is the biggest back to school event we’ve ever had,” said Lincoln Cooper, president and founder of the community outreach organization the Concerned Family (TCF). “We’ve had a lot of support and we’re really thankful and grateful that we were able to help the community.”
The faith-based, Black-lead community outreach organization, founded in 1993 and run out of an old fire station in Perris, has organized back-to school events in the past; but none quite on this scale, the group’s leaders say. According to Lincoln, they received over 750 backpacks filled to the brim with useful supplies.
“What we had planned, initially, was not the backpacks. The plan was to remember those who lost their relatives in the COVID-19 pandemic and have a memorial for them and then assure the kids that they’re still being heard, and we are not just passing them by while they are grieving,” said TCF Co-Founder Fortunate Hove Cooper.
The Coopers are not alone in their concern for struggling Black families with children returning to school this fall as uncertainty about the coronavirus and its new variants lingers.
For many Black California families, especially lower-income ones, having their children resume in-person classes amidst an ongoing pandemic remains both a financial and public health challenge. But during a visit to Juanita B. Jones Elementary School in San Bernardino on Aug. 6, Gov. Gavin Newsom laid out a roadmap for the state’s safe return to in-person instruction.
During the press conference, Newsom spoke about the California Comeback Plan, a COVID-19 recovery budget that includes $123.9 billion in investments in education. He was joined by Assembly Majority Leader Eloise Gomez Reyes (D-San Bernardino), Assemblymember James Ramos (D-Highland), Superintendent of Education Tony Thurmond, Gwendolyn Dowdy-Rodgers, a San Bernardino County education advocate and school board member, among others.
“Our school year started Monday and we’ve had a great week,” Dr. Gwen Dowdy-Rogers, the San Bernardino City Unified School District school board president, said at the beginning of the press conference.
“Families sent 95% of all students back to our campuses for the first time in over a year for in-person instruction,” she continued.
Newsom addressed some of the pandemic related financial issues students and families like those at the Concerned Family back to school event face.
“By the way, $650 million went into this unprecedented first of the nation effort to provide free nutritious meals for our kids,” Newsom said.
“Supervisor Baca would be upset with me if I didn’t remind everybody about all the support that we’re providing these kids,” he continued.
The governor also reassured that this “full reopening of schools” during a pandemic will be safe.
However, Lincoln and Fortunate are still concerned about COVID-19 safety for Pre-K and K-12 students.
“There’s so much going on with the pandemic and even young kids are dying. Initially it was older people.” Lincoln said.
“So, I’d advise them to make sure they’re wearing their face masks and be cautious,” he continued.
Newsom claimed that many of the problems surrounding pandemic safety in schools could be solved by following safety protocols and getting vaccinated.
He also addressed the inequities in education and healthcare in the state and what he plans to do to tackle that issue.
“We continue to disproportionately focus on partnerships with community-based organizations in the African American community and in the Latino community to do more, to get more people vaccinated and address the concerns and anxieties that persist in terms of vaccine hesitancy,” Newsom said.
“And that’s profoundly important, the health of our diverse communities. And I want folks to know that we have doubled down 480 community-based organizations working with barber shops, faith-based communities, the Black press, ethnic media, crossing the spectrum to provide additional outreach,” he continued.
Newsom says that the California Comeback Plan is a comprehensive one that took healthcare into consideration.
“A big part of our community school strategy is to integrate and to reimagine a whole person care framework as it relates to not only quality public education but to address the health needs as well as the nutrition needs of our public kids,” Newsom said.
California Black Media’s coverage of COVID-19 is supported by the California Health Care Foundation.