At present course and speed, schools will just let out when summer arrives — with no real plan for students.
This amounts to a risky, all-in bet that the coronavirus already will have been contained, that hot weather will thwart its resurgence, and that it’s safe to expect that kids with nothing to do will sustain social distancing.
A better solution? Extend the school year into the summer, and do it online.
Learning time has already been lost as schools have struggled to embrace distance learning. In most cases, kids will probably be “promoted” to the next grade, regardless of readiness. School districts don’t have funds at the ready to continue operations into summer. The state hasn’t budgeted for it, either. The best way to address this gap would be to commit federal funds, now, for schools to continue operating online into June, July and beyond as needed. It’s not OK for this to be a lost year.
What about summer schools, some might ask. Couldn’t they step up to this moment? The answer is no.
Summer school has always been a baling-wire-and-chewing-gum thing. It only exists where people somehow cobble money together to make it happen. It certainly isn’t universal, like regular school. In normal times, people who run summer programs for children would be gearing up right now. Few are doing that this year, because the uncertainties are too large.
The digital divide has been a glaring issue for years. The coronavirus has made it obvious that closing this gap is not optional, and that the time is now.
The $2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, swiftly enacted to respond the pandemic, sets aside no funds to address the digital divide. In order to provide all children with access to education during a shelter-in-place order, each child needs a decent personal computing device and effective access to the internet where they live. “Go to a library” or “use your phone” isn’t a good enough answer anymore.
This is a hard problem, but only by recent standards. Past generations tackled far bigger challenges such as providing universal access to roads, electricity, clean water and sanitation, vaccination, schools, television and telecommunication. All families need to be able to access distance learning not just in theory but every day.
This can be done.
Extending the school year online does not necessarily have to mean grinding onward with school as if nothing changed. Districts could give schools and teachers leeway to craft their own plans for the extended school year. Online classes don’t have to be of uniform size, or have homework. They don’t have to be conventionally tested. The core purpose, after all, would be to inspire students and families to stay home, stay healthy and remain engaged.
To do any of this will require significant new federal funding, fast. Neither school districts nor the state carry budget reserves sufficient to deal with this unprecedented challenge. This is a nationwide emergency, and federal funding is both essential and appropriate.
Unfortunately, the CARES Act falls short not only for the needs of the summer, but for the school year that comes after it. The California Legislative Analyst Office estimates that California will receive an amount in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion for all of K-12 education. This is budget dust — less than 1 percent of the total CARES package, and on the order of less than $500 per high-need student. It’s far too little to help states sustain schools in a pandemic. Students deserve better than budget dust.
Technology companies and others have been generously donating to some school districts to mitigate gaps, temporarily — but that’s not a long-term solution.
Universal household connectivity and device access, especially for low-income students, is not just a summer issue. It is not just a California issue. It’s not even just a this-year issue. Significant federal investment now can help schools throughout the nation incorporate digital learning in a way that will allow some lasting benefits to come from a terrible situation.
Federal leaders may be slow to realize the need for school to be extended into summer, leaving little time for planning. It would be prudent for county offices of education and school districts to begin developing contingency measures now.
Jeff Camp and Carol Kocivar co-edit Ed100.org, a free resource in English and Spanish that demystifies California’s education system. Camp is past chair of the Education Circle for Full Circle Fund and Kocivar is past president of the California State PTA.
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