The harm to children as a result of being locked out of their school buildings for over a year has been documented again and again and again. It is hard to find any silver linings in the policy responses to this pandemic.
But while it has never been clearer that public schools must never again be the first places to close and the last to open, the galvanizing of parents as advocates for their children is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine what education reform means in California.
Our message to parents is, “get involved now!” — lean into all the anxiety, frustration and concern this year has created. Run for a school board seat, get involved on your school site council, fill a role on your school’s PTA.
Decision-makers in California delayed schools from safe reopening — meaning our state has consistently been last in the percentage of students with access to in-person instruction — despite evidence last fall that they could be reopened safely and that prolonged closures were detrimental to children. Closures have also been incredibly harmful to working mothers, who have shouldered the burden of remote learning and faced staggering job loss numbers.
Members of the California Legislature are currently debating what the 2021-22 academic year should look like for the 6 million children attending public school in California, with some legislators, like Sen. Connie Levya, stating that there should be robust distance learning options for families.
While we recognize there are families who, because of medical necessity or choice, would prefer to continue with distance learning, the vast majority (83%) of California public school parents in a statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California believe their kids have fallen behind academically during remote learning. The majority of parents also believe English-language learners and lower-income students have lost the most ground.
In addition, while comprehensive data still hasn’t been collected on parent desires for fall instruction, partial data collected by the Oakland Unified School District finds that a whopping 95% of parents intend to send their kids back to school in-person — the data is over 90% for all racial groups.
Schools are a refuge for children and parents and serve far more than an educational role. Many California families rely on public schools to provide their kids with two meals a day and the opportunity to see a dentist or get their eyesight and hearing checked. Schools also play a vital role in reporting incidences of child abuse, and correspondingly, reporting has decreased markedly while California children have been learning from home, which is not always a safe place. Finally, for children with learning and other developmental disabilities, in-person schools provide crucial support for both children and their families. Remote learning has been particularly disastrous for these children, as their legally mandated services and assessments cannot be replicated virtually.
Furthermore, the response to this pandemic has created an inequitable situation that has privileged students in wealthy California districts. Students attending school in Marin County have been in school all year, while their peers across the bay in Richmond have at best only been inside a classroom a couple of hours a day twice a week, and only since April. This dynamic of educational inequity during the pandemic — where students in richer districts or counties have had access to better instruction — cannot continue in our state.
During the pandemic, schools could have been a safe haven for children, as they were in many states in this country and across Europe. As has been noted in numerous studies, rates of spread have been lower in school settings than in surrounding communities. The skyrocketing mental health crisis among teens suffering from anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation due to the isolation and disengagement from prolonged remote learning, wasn’t a given. It’s not an exaggeration to state that many kids have suffered needlessly.
What is clear to us as California moves toward the end of this pandemic is that the agendas of adult stakeholders and decision-makers were too often prioritized over the interests and well-being of children. Parents are now more determined than ever to make sure that never happens again. We are keenly aware of which elected leaders stood up for children this year and which ones remained silent, and we intend to encourage and support parents to run for school board seats to better represent our goals.
The federal and state governments have made extraordinary investments in schools, and we must think creatively about how parents, families and other stakeholders who were absent in the policy decisions of the past year can insert our voices into the public education conversation moving forward.
We must build parent and student power in order to provide a counter-balance to other public education stakeholders and develop a post-Covid policy agenda that prioritizes the needs and well-being of all California children. We want to make sure parents and kids have a seat at the table!
Megan Bacigalupi is an Oakland Unified School District parent of two and founder and executive director of OpenSchoolsCA, a statewide parent advocacy organization. Rebecca Bodenheimer is an Oakland-based freelance writer and editor and mother of two; she serves as an advisory board member of OpenSchoolsCA.
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