Since schools were closed two months ago to curb the spread of the coronavirus, changes have come so fast it has been difficult to get our bearings.
But as the educational picture has come into focus, it is clear that students are losing critical months of learning. The students who can least afford to lose that learning — English learners, foster youth and students with disabilities — are taking the biggest hits. Addressing this situation will take state leadership.
The planning should begin with recognizing the limitations of virtual learning. Overburdened parents are thankful for anything that engages their children, but ensuring availability of internet access and devices are just the first steps. Every other element is dependent on the capacity of teachers, students and parents.
Distance learning is difficult enough for middle-class parents in a single-family home, but it is far more difficult for low-income families in smaller residences — not to mention homeless families. For students with disabilities such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or autism, the situation may be untenable educationally and emotionally. Nor can we expect non-English speaking parents to teach their children English. The longer we stay in this situation, the more we will deepen the structural and racial inequities in our education system.
Given this harm, education leaders must shift their focus to the summer and fall. There is likely to be some level of distance learning during the next school year, but districts should not be scrambling to provide devices and hotspots; that should be a state responsibility.
School districts should be focusing their limited financial resources on quickly addressing lost learning by assessing student needs, expanding learning time, and re-configuring schools and classrooms. Some teachers, counselors and psychologists — especially those whose work cannot effectively be delivered virtually — could be classified by the state as essential personnel so they can start working with students with disabilities as soon as possible.
Just as they are being asked to do more, districts will have less. The nation is in a recession, and school districts will face enormous budget cuts as state tax revenues shrink. Many districts are spending down their limited financial reserves on unexpected technology and school-meal costs.
The last budget crisis brutalized public education, resulting in tens of thousands of layoffs and years of bad blood between district leaders and unions. Without an enormous injection of federal relief, such as the 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), the effect could be even worse this time.
Unfortunately, many of the tools available during the Great Recession to address budget shortfalls will not work because of the pandemic. For example, normally districts could cut costs by increasing class sizes. Not only would that harm efforts to address the lost learning of high-needs students now, it could threaten students’ and teachers’ health. In order to re-open school, they will have to reduce class sizes and increase physical separation.
Districts could lay off teachers but that likely would begin with the youngest teachers; meanwhile, the more senior teachers, who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus, will likely have to continue sheltering at home. Many teachers who planned on retiring may stay in the workforce, causing even more layoffs of teachers with less seniority. Because the highest poverty schools tend to have more new teachers, those layoffs will disproportionately affect the students most vulnerable to learning loss.
Now is the time for state leadership, not more local control.
The responsibility for California’s 6 million students cannot fall solely on the shoulders of a thousand local leaders. There should be state-level planning and guidance for summer learning and the safe reopening of schools in areas such as assessment, curriculum, English-learner supports, addressing trauma, school and class configuration, facilities cleaning and time management.
There must be specific proposals on how to free up district resources to support our most vulnerable students while maintaining solvency. Some ideas, such as shifting from a school funding system based on average daily attendance to annual student enrollment are no-brainers given that likely impacts of the pandemic on student attendance.
State leaders made the courageous decision to close school through the end of the year and summer. It is now time for them to be similarly courageous in planning for reopening schools and prioritizing the learning of California’s most vulnerable students.
Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement in public schools.
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