Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education
A fifth-grade student watches a lesson on her computer during school.

My daughter attends a Berkeley public elementary school that borders a private school. She doesn’t really attend — she Zooms — but the private school kids attend in person. Such juxtapositions can be found across California:

Little wonder, then, that Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) alluded to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education when he denounced remote learning’s web of “state-sanctioned segregation.”

The 1954 decision famously declared segregated schools “inherently unequal.” Rather than integrate their public schools though, parents in eleven Southern states abandoned them for private “segregation academies.” O’Donnell could have had those in mind when he lamented, “Some kids get to go, and some don’t.”

Assembly Member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) has introduced Assembly Bill 10 to spur reopening and stanch the learning gap caused by remote learning. Starting on March 1, AB10 reads, districts “shall publicly adopt a plan to offer in-person instruction within two weeks” after “public health orders” permit them to open.

This is a step in the right direction. AB10 however, as with the Brown decision, threatens to undercut the stated goals of its authors. The Brown decision stipulated that integration proceed “with all deliberate speed,” which Southern school districts translated into all deliberation and no speed. AB10 is mired with similar ambiguities. These include:

  • Which “public health orders” are districts obliged to follow? California merely permits school districts to reopen once a county has spent two weeks in the red coronavirus tier; counties, however, can forbid schools from reopening.
  • Why adopt rather than implement a plan? The proposed legislation does not set the timing for districts to reopen, only to “adopt a plan.” Why not adopt now in order to implement when public health officials permit?
  • What counts as a reopening plan? Ting’s bill says that’s up to districts to decide to the “greatest extent possible.” That can mean anything.

The head of the California Teachers Association, E. Toby Boyd, insisted that he was “not willing to sacrifice one child, one adult” to Covid. The sentiment is laudable, but its logic lamentable. If the risk of a single death is sufficient to keep schools closed, then schools would be hard-pressed to ever reopen, especially during flu season.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren adopted the unfortunate “all deliberate speed” phrase in order to secure a unanimous court, which more forceful language would have precluded. Unless AB10’s authors are engaged in a similar exercise in self-defeating appeasement, they need to resolve the bill’s ambiguities.

Better yet, they could join forces with Assembly Member Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin). His Open California Schools Act calls for “full-time in-person instruction” within two weeks from the time that “state and county health orders” permit it. Kiley and Ting have the opportunity to pool their efforts and bring bipartisan harmony to the nonpartisan notion that education is best conducted in person. They also have the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new “Safe Schools for All” plan.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

In the 10 months that have passed since the pandemic prompted school closures, we’ve learned that the toll of remote learning far outweighs the minimal risk of reopening. Wearing masks and social distancing, notes Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of Covid emergency response at UCSF, are as effective now as a vaccine will be (90%).

Moreover, both of these mitigation measures are supported by the governor’s plan. Among other things, it promises to provide millions of free masks, while permitting a distance-learning option for parents who prefer it, which will, in turn, reduce the number of students attending in person.

If in-person schooling can be made to work for some, then it can be made to work for all to the maximum extent that public health officials permit.

What the Supreme Court said about ending school segregation a decade after Brown can be said about ending remote learning as we approach its one-year anniversary: “The time for mere ‘deliberate speed’ has run out.”

•••

Mark Brilliant is associate professor of history and American studies at UC Berkeley, father of two Berkeley Unified School District students and member of BUSDparents.com.

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  1. Jonathan Ayres 2 months ago2 months ago

    We must continue to support unions in this country so that workers are empowered to uphold their right to determine the conditions under which they will work. The steady attack on unions we have seen since the Reagan era have led us to huge swaths of workers who are barely making a living and are surely exploited for their labor.

  2. Mati Teiblum 2 months ago2 months ago

    Actions have consequences; so does inaction. The Head of California Teachers Association, E. Toby Boyd, insists that he was “not willing to sacrifice one child, one adult” to COVID-19. Unfortunately children’s lives are being put at greater risk (I’m intentionally avoiding the word “sacrifice”: it’s too loaded): health professionals have been reporting increase rates of suicide, and suicidal patterns among youth due to the long isolation and lack of social interaction; the effects may be long- term … Read More

    Actions have consequences; so does inaction.

    The Head of California Teachers Association, E. Toby Boyd, insists that he was “not willing to sacrifice one child, one adult” to COVID-19.

    Unfortunately children’s lives are being put at greater risk (I’m intentionally avoiding the word “sacrifice”: it’s too loaded): health professionals have been reporting increase rates of suicide, and suicidal patterns among youth due to the long isolation and lack of social interaction; the effects may be long- term as well.

    The teachers decision to block the reopening schools surely protects the teachers, but does it actually protect the children as well?

  3. Kevan Jenson 2 months ago2 months ago

    This is a very cogent appraisal of the pitfalls of virtual learning and the need to clarify the stakes of small picture thinking about risk. We understand. All of us have to face our paranoias, but we still shop at supermarkets, people do essential activities, and deal with the risks under this COVID reality. How are teachers any different than nurses, food service workers or other essential workers? Teachers have … Read More

    This is a very cogent appraisal of the pitfalls of virtual learning and the need to clarify the stakes of small picture thinking about risk.

    We understand. All of us have to face our paranoias, but we still shop at supermarkets, people do essential activities, and deal with the risks under this COVID reality.

    How are teachers any different than nurses, food service workers or other essential workers? Teachers have gotten contracts and benefits that reflect our understanding of their status as essential workers. Now they have to make good on their side of the bargain. Safely, but pro-actively.

    The research is clear: schools can be safely opened, private schools are successfully open now and remain open during this horrible surge. We cannot let public schools shirk their responsibilities to those who cannot pay their way into a more privileged educational situation.

    Brilliant is describing de facto racism, something Berkeley Schools have been in the forefront of addressing for a generation. See Kamala Harris! We cannot let his go unaddressed in the overall strategy of getting our kids educated and back in school. See Joe Biden who is planning now how to do this. We must match that effort from the community side.

    So if the school admin, teachers and the union can see the full impact of this educational crisis clearly as a form of privilege, they can re-frame their fears, address their essential job status, demand good practices of protection, and make a plan to serve the community.

    We must understand that there is no such thing as zero risk, to believe in that fantasy is akin to QAnon Trumpism. Let’s get real and demand a concrete, pragmatic plan based on reality.

  4. Lei Levi 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you Mark for your continued effort to call attention to the public education crisis happening before our eyes. It’s been 300+ days since most Bay Area schools have been closed. I write “most” because as you noted private schools and Marin public schools are open for in-person instruction. How is that equitable? How is it safe for a private school teacher and not a public school teacher to teach in-person right … Read More

    Thank you Mark for your continued effort to call attention to the public education crisis happening before our eyes. It’s been 300+ days since most Bay Area schools have been closed. I write “most” because as you noted private schools and Marin public schools are open for in-person instruction. How is that equitable? How is it safe for a private school teacher and not a public school teacher to teach in-person right now?

    Every student and teacher deserves the option for in-person and distance learning. I empathize with all teachers who are afraid to go back but fear should no longer keep schools closed. According to UCSF covid experts the safety protocols are on par with a vaccine. We need our local elected officials like Gov Newsom to prioritize public education now! Learning loss, mental anguish, social isolation, suicide ideation among children are at peak levels. We need to open schools, safely. The kids are not alright.

  5. Green Huse 2 months ago2 months ago

    Well said Mark,
    Thank you

  6. Hillary Kilimnik 2 months ago2 months ago

    Thank you, Professor Brilliant for this thoughtful op-ed. Time to follow the science and get kids (who are ready), back in the classroom–traditional or outdoors, as is being done in several school districts around the country.

    Replies

    • Jonathan Ayres 2 months ago2 months ago

      "Time to follow the science?" The data is not conclusive. How many months of studies do we have? Who has conducted these studies? Where? Do you not see the teachers who have already died? Cries of "but the data shows..." are being used to support every possible side, that's how politicized the situation is. Why aren't we crying out to get waiters back into restaurants, tattoo artists back in parlours and hairdressers into their salons? Read More

      “Time to follow the science?” The data is not conclusive. How many months of studies do we have? Who has conducted these studies? Where? Do you not see the teachers who have already died? Cries of “but the data shows…” are being used to support every possible side, that’s how politicized the situation is. Why aren’t we crying out to get waiters back into restaurants, tattoo artists back in parlours and hairdressers into their salons?

  7. Jackson Harris 2 months ago2 months ago

    I support the Professor Brilliant's position: Berkeley Unified School District should be prepared to open when public health officials say it is safe to do so! My daughter is in kindergarten at BUSD this year. Early childhood education is quite different from university. Fortunately my daughter attended preschool, which was cut off last spring. The changes in her behavior since closure have been striking. We've relied heavily on public parks to get some interactions with other kids, … Read More

    I support the Professor Brilliant’s position: Berkeley Unified School District should be prepared to open when public health officials say it is safe to do so!

    My daughter is in kindergarten at BUSD this year.

    Early childhood education is quite different from university. Fortunately my daughter attended preschool, which was cut off last spring. The changes in her behavior since closure have been striking. We’ve relied heavily on public parks to get some interactions with other kids, but this is a far cry from what she needs in terms of social skill development. We are also fortunate to have the ability to put a lot (!) of our time into supporting her online education, and she’s doing relatively well academically. But there is no substitute for group interactions with peers at this age. There is no doubt that children of essential workers, and lower income families will suffer a much greater impact, both in terms of academics and social development.

    It is tragic that so many people have died. The teacher memorial website linked above, however, doesn’t make any attempt to connect infections with in-person teaching. In fact it notes at the top that one teacher was in fact teaching remotely, and retired teachers are also included. We’ve seen downright irresponsible responses to the pandemic across the country. But it’s also possible to go too far the other direction.

    No BUSD parent wants an irresponsible return to in-person learning, putting teachers at unnecessary risk. But many of us do believe, as other schools (e.g. Marin) have demonstrated, that it is possible to do so responsibly and safely when the infection rate is below a certain threshold. The risk for teachers will never be 0.00%, as the piece notes, and it must be balanced against the real harm to our children that is accumulating with each passing week of missed in-person learning. I think it should be up to public health agencies to determine the appropriate balance between teacher safety and the interests of our young children.

  8. Sarah Bowles 2 months ago2 months ago

    This whole situation sounds like our generation's version of redlining. We've now decided to put structural inequality on steroids to truly bifurcate the haves and the have-nots. In a state where 60% of kids need free lunch (that's ~3.5 million kids), we've cut them off. And to supercharge things, we've ripped hundreds of hours of equalizing educational access away from millions of poor kids who already start school with multi-million word gaps when compared to … Read More

    This whole situation sounds like our generation’s version of redlining. We’ve now decided to put structural inequality on steroids to truly bifurcate the haves and the have-nots. In a state where 60% of kids need free lunch (that’s ~3.5 million kids), we’ve cut them off. And to supercharge things, we’ve ripped hundreds of hours of equalizing educational access away from millions of poor kids who already start school with multi-million word gaps when compared to their wealthy peers.

    I clicked through to the list of teacher deaths. It is absolutely horrible to see so many deaths. What struck me most about the list though was the obvious location of deaths in places where masks were not (and still are not) mandatory in schools. As we all know, masks + social distancing is equal to the upcoming vaccines. That’s why we’re all able to go to the grocery store or take walks with friends while wearing masks without getting ill. It’s truly horrible those teachers died in places where their states did not safeguard their safety – but that isn’t the situation in California where masks in schools would be mandatory.

  9. Replies

    • Lauren 2 months ago2 months ago

      Jonathan – while it is absolutely sad to lose anyone from the virus, the website you linked to does not state that those teachers were in the classroom when they got Covid. Indeed, it calls out that some of those educators were retired. Thus, this is not wholly relevant to the discussion.

  10. Jonathan Ayres 2 months ago2 months ago

    Dear Professor Brilliant,
    Sadly your argument here is completely unpersuasive and even borders on hypocritical as you and all the Berkeley faculty are also not offering on-site instruction at all this semester, with no plans to do so for the entire semester. Your university students’ education and social-emotional well-being are also being irrevocably damaged by your faculty’s choice to teach remotely only. So how can you preach what you yourself are not practicing?

    Replies

    • Gina Morris 2 months ago2 months ago

      The comparison of ongoing distance learning for students who attend one of the nation's top universities versus distance learning with no end in sight for K-12 students is absurd. Universities have been managing online coursework for many years, and therefore have a facility for it that far exceeds anything that K-12 public schools have been able to cobble together. In-person university courses are for the most part not designed to foster the development of critical … Read More

      The comparison of ongoing distance learning for students who attend one of the nation’s top universities versus distance learning with no end in sight for K-12 students is absurd. Universities have been managing online coursework for many years, and therefore have a facility for it that far exceeds anything that K-12 public schools have been able to cobble together. In-person university courses are for the most part not designed to foster the development of critical social-emotional and 21st century skills, and therefore these skills are not lost in the transition to online learning. K-12 students desperately need the support, routines and interactions that allow them to become competent in these areas, and the research bears this out. And, the fact that students who have excelled enough in their K-12 education to get into a university, let alone one like UC Berkeley, is enough to assume that the majority of them will be able to succeed at learning off-campus.

      The same cannot be said for younger pubic school students who are faced with an extremely different set of circumstances, the majority of whom still need structured adult support and supervision to succeed in their coursework. Lastly, the lives lost as a result of the pandemic and the individuals and institutions that turned a blind eye toward the toxic and incompetent leadership that was allowed to mismanage it is a travesty.

      The list of teachers you linked to is one of the many sad examples of this. However, it is not at all representative of your argument, as this list does not focus on the dangers of in-person teaching and deaths resulting from doing so in the era of Covid. It is simply a place for people to honor educators who have been lost, and I suggest that one way to honor them is by making sure we take care of the public school students so many of them served. Making false comparisons and choosing to focus on fear over data is not serving anyone.