Commentary: Delaware NAACP requests equality in COVID-19 response

The following is a letter to Delaware Gov. John Carney from Richard Smith, president of Delaware NAACP State Conference of Branches:

Dear Gov. Carney,

We are writing to request that your office and cabinet agencies, such as the Department of Health and Social Services, Department of Education, Department of Corrections, and any other relevant agency, monitor and address several areas that prove detrimental to thousands of minority and disenfranchised Delawareans as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis. As the number of COVID-19 cases in Delaware continue to grow exponentially, so do disparities that inhibit equal access to health, education, and economic stability. We urge you to review the areas of concentration outlined within this letter and make a concerted effort to work with the proper agencies, stakeholders, and constituents to address them.

I.                 Equitable Access to COVID-19 Testing, Care, and Treatment

Equitable access to testing, care, and treatment is critical to saving lives and slowing the spread of COVID-19. Health care providers throughout various regions nationally have already begun to publicly express their concerns about Black and Hispanic people being less likely to access testing. Delaware must ensure that testing, care, and treatment for COVID-19 doesn’t occur merely in communities of convenience, but also throughout the vulnerable, lower socioeconomic communities that obviously need resources most. To that point, when scheduling testing sites, it is critical to take into consideration the fact that many Delawareans lack access to a vehicle that will allow them to be tested via a drive-through site.

II.                Safety Measures for the Incarcerated

At least twelve inmates and eleven correctional officers have tested positive for COVID-19. To prevent catastrophe and reduce further harm within the Delaware prison system, we recommend the following:

  • prison sentences or arrests for misdemeanor convictions be eliminated during this time;
    • parole hearings for all those incarcerated be expedited;
    • emergency measures be implemented to release as quickly and safely as possible the elderly, those incarcerated for violating technical terms of probation, and those who committed non-violent offenses and have comorbidities and complex medical needs;
    • increased access to mental health services for the incarcerated;
  • emergency measures be implemented to ensure that people released from incarceration have access to enhanced re-entry support to include housing, food, and health care.
III.  Protection for Essential Business Workers

The desperate need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) during this time of crisis extends far beyond health care workers. Grocery store, janitorial, restaurant, transportation, production and manufacturing; and other essential business workers, many of whom are low to middle-class earners that can’t work from home, come face-to-face with countless people daily absent the provision of the essential PPE necessary to keep them safe. For instance, most of the Longshoreman at the Port of Wilmington are minority, lower level, middle-class workers who have not been furnished with the necessary PPE. Many of them are afraid and can’t afford to stay home. We find these unsafe working conditions to be deplorable. We are calling on you and Delaware lawmakers to take immediate, decisive action that will provide more protection for essential business employees, to include but not be limited to, adequate PPE and hazardous duty pay.

IV.              Current Status of K-12 Education and its Future Impact on Students

We wish to make sure equity, including racial equity, is advanced by efforts to address COVID-19. Has the State sent out surveys to communities, including the black community and communities of color, asking how the new federal funding should be used? Does the State plan to have virtual meetings with communities, including black and other communities of color, to address community questions and concerns about the new funding and K-12 education going forward during the COVID-19 crisis? If so, when? Will, or does, the State require school districts to develop and implement continuity of learning plans with particular attention to underperforming student subgroups, and individual students performing below grade level in any subject? What are the accountability guardrails for the use of continuity of learning or similar plans? 16% of black and 22% of Latino students who took the 2019 NAEP Fourth Grade Reading test in Delaware scored at or above proficient. That’s abysmal.

Literacy for all is not an option in a democracy. Since schools are closed, how will you ensure that any on-line and/or distance learning for students also addresses the digital divide that already exists in so many of our schools and homes? Equity in opportunity requires equality in accessibility. How will you ensure that student meals are provided outside the schools?

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act requires the Secretary of Education to submit, within 30 days of enactment of the CARES Act, a report to Congress with recommendations on any additional waivers the Secretary deems necessary under IDEA, the Rehabilitation Act, and other education laws. We submit that no additional waivers are necessary under either IDEA or the Rehab Act, and if federal waivers are granted, you should use your authority, carrot and stick, to discourage districts from employing additional waivers to eliminate fundamental protections, e.g., parents’ due process rights, civil rights laws, free and appropriate public education.

V.               Economic Stability for Small, Minority-Owned Businesses

Historically, banks and other major corporations have been bailed out during times of economic crisis; yet small businesses were left to grapple with the effects of spiraling economic downturns. State of emergency declarations forced small businesses in the service industry, such as barbershops, beauty and nail salons, and daycare centers, to completely close their doors without any alternate means of continued operations unlike other small businesses, such as restaurants and those that have e-commerce options. Many of these Delaware businesses are owned by minorities and women. While we understand that the Paycheck Protection Program makes small businesses eligible for special low-interest loans to cover major operating expenses and possibly a small grant, we also understand that these loans are granted on a first-come, first- serve basis, leaving small business owners to deal with the uncertainty that the odds of being unable to tap into this relief brings.

Moreover, in most cases the maximum loan amount will cover no more than a few months of expenses. We can no longer afford to ignore the financial disparities that decades of colorblind policies and classism have created for many small businesses. We implore you to maximize your executive power and ensure equitable and impartial distribution of any disaster relief funding that will be made available to Delaware businesses.

In closing, as the oldest, largest, and most widely recognized Civil Rights organization in the nation, the NAACP has fought tirelessly to improve the quality of life for minority groups who are socially, politically, economically, and environmentally disenfranchised. A significant and integral component to the achievement of our goals is collaboration and partnership with your office and other key members of State leadership. As such, we are requesting to begin an immediate dialogue to discuss, on a profound and comprehensive level, approaches and frameworks that will best address the time-sensitive and extremely critical matters detailed herein.

Thank you in advance for your anticipated, timely response.