Courtesy of Tamonie Benjamin

As California faces its biggest challenge yet in fending off the coronavirus pandemic, parents are bombarded with all kinds of information about Covid-19 except what we need to know: What is happening statewide in our schools.

Without that data, our students will remain in distance learning rather than returning to the classroom. Schools need a comprehensive statewide dashboard like the one used to track student achievement so administrators and teachers can understand the relative risks and make informed decisions. As a member of a county school board, I have been struck by the dearth of such data.

Coronavirus data such as positivity rate, hospitalizations and the number of available ICU beds help gauge the spread of the disease and the medical facility resources available. It doesn’t tell us what is happening in schools and doesn’t give parents and teachers data about when it is safe to return to in-person classes. As a result, the vast majority of California students remain stuck in distance learning.

For many students and their families, distance learning is ineffective. These students are falling behind in their studies and suffering adverse mental and physical health effects from isolation. In order to facilitate the safe re-opening of more schools statewide, we need a dashboard that would provide:

  • Location of schools throughout the state that have received a waiver to re-open.
  • Number of students being served in-person at each school, broken down by the number of all-day students versus students attending for part of the day as well as data for elementary, middle school and high school students.
  • Total number of Covid-19 cases that were transmitted while the student or teacher was on the school campus compared to county and state numbers.

Some schools (primarily small district schools, public charters and private schools) returned to in-person learning when they received a waiver from their county health department. These schools have opened safely and are providing critical data about coronavirus cases through the tracking and contact tracing processes outlined by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the California Department of Public Health and local health departments.

In my county, for example, Folsom Cordova School District has a dashboard with information about cases at its schools as well as coronavirus resources. What we don’t have is a statewide look at school-associated coronavirus cases. Such information would help us build on the experiences of other districts, inform our local decisions and avoid mistakes.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recounted conversations with 20 mayors across the country in a Politico article, saying, “Most of them have been honest with me that they can’t figure out how to get out of remote, that they didn’t have the pieces ready and they don’t know how to put together in real time all the pieces they need. It’s not lack of will, but they just find it a huge challenge.”

There is no doubt it is a huge challenge to safely re-open schools. But reliance on accurate data will give us the confidence needed to safely put students back in the classroom.

Two pieces of legislation were introduced this month in Sacramento to help provide clarity and streamline school openings in an effort to ensure equal educational opportunities for students throughout the state. Both AB10 (authored in part by Assembly Education Committee Chair Patrick O’Donnell, Assembly Education Budget Chair Kevin McCarty and Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez), as well as Assembly member Kevin Kiley’s AB76, would require schools in the state’s red, orange and yellow Covid-tracking tiers to open within two weeks of receiving state or county public health orders that it is safe to do so.

Although I appreciate the Legislature taking the lead in getting our students back to in-person learning, I caution that if we do not have reliable data about each school that has received a waiver, then we are moving legislation forward with one arm tied behind our back. Mandates from the state are often not nuanced enough and hyper-local data can be too insular to make effective decisions for an entire region.

It is imperative that we build a statewide dashboard with data from schools that are open now so that we have an appropriate tool to guide decisions about when to widen access for in-person instruction.

Our students are facing an educational crisis that will persist for years. The majority of our state’s children need in-person learning. We should use science to make that happen rather than build the plan on dodgy data. 

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Paul Keefer is Area 3 trustee for the Sacramento County Board of Education

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Todd Maddison 4 months ago4 months ago

    A great, common sense outline of what we need to determine the safety level of any return to school plans.

    I would add to his bullet point two that we need to know not only how many all-day vs. part day, but how many days per week.

    We have all this data already. All we need is to be allowed to see it.

  2. Emily Oster 4 months ago4 months ago

    The COVID-19 School Response Dashboard has been organizing data from districts around the country in the hopes of providing insight into some of the opening questions raised here. We would be happy to partner with the State on this, or assist with development of their dashboard. We agree that better information and data is key to reopening both because the information can guide decisions (around, for example, the necessary amount of distancing) and because transparent reporting … Read More

    The COVID-19 School Response Dashboard has been organizing data from districts around the country in the hopes of providing insight into some of the opening questions raised here. We would be happy to partner with the State on this, or assist with development of their dashboard.

    We agree that better information and data is key to reopening both because the information can guide decisions (around, for example, the necessary amount of distancing) and because transparent reporting is key to building trust with educators and parents.