Editorial: Reopening California schools is dangerous. But so is letting kids go a year without learning
Sean Brandlin, an eighth grade social teacher at El Segundo Middle School, stands in his classroom. (Los Angeles times)
With COVID-19 cases at very low levels within its borders, Israel fully reopened its schools in mid-May. By the end of the month, 130 students from a Jerusalem high school had tested positive for the virus, triggering a flood of quarantines for people in physical contact with the students and the closure of dozens of schools.
This is the result that American parents fear if they consider sending their children back to school sometime this summer or fall.
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It's a worrying scenario, but also the distance learning experience of the past three months. The reality is that more children do better when schools reopen than when they go online. But regardless of how we do it, we have to do better.
With little guidance or help from the federal and state governments, online K-12 classes were not particularly good. Some school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, prepared practically overnight and began feeding their communities as well. Others, including the Chicago Public Schools, spent weeks getting ready, but were still ill-prepared when they finally got started.
Nationwide teacher agreements, including those in LA Unified, have been changed to reduce the number of lessons required to complete the school year, and live lessons have often been optional. Some teachers sweat bullets to conduct dedicated classes and ensure that students understood the material. Others distributed online tasks with little contact with students. The parents took on new roles as teachers or were as overwhelmed as their children. Some students simply disappeared from view and never logged on.
Two recent studies showed that students made little or no progress in their studies from the time they closed school. Wealthy students are most likely to have significant learning gains, while low-income students are least likely to. Energy teachers could make a difference, but they couldn't magically overcome the hurdles of disadvantaged black and Latin students like severe financial burdens, language barriers, and parents who weren't available to them. Despite the efforts of many school districts, too many students still had no access to computers and broadband connections. The weakening of traditional school grades could make learning less urgent.
Three months of unprecedented distance learning for masses of students have exhausted parents, teachers, and administrators. However, if you get the students back on campus, both the effort and the disruption multiply. From 2020 to 21, schools would look something like this, according to the new California and state guidelines: classrooms with half as many students or less, all desks facing forward, no shared supplies, markings on the floor for placement at a safe distance, Fabric masks for staff and students, lunch at desks instead of in dining rooms.
Virtual excursions would replace real ones. Meetings and soccer games would be unlikely. Personal courses may take place every other day and alternate with online lessons. Bus drivers sat alone in their seats, every other row. Temperature tests would be done before anyone entered campus.
Teachers, many of whom are older or have health issues that make COVID-19 more dangerous for them, are not fans of the plan. A USA Today / Ipsos poll found that one in five reported stopping instead of returning to campus. You have company. A separate survey found that most parents do not want schools to reopen until security is assured. Wealthy parents are particularly likely to say that if they were reopened, they would not send their children back to school.
In a way, that could be a good thing. If the number of students on campus needs to be severely limited, it is easier if some stay at home. But let's not kid ourselves: children whose parents have the resources to teach them at home will continue to make progress. Those who go to schools where their teachers wear face protection and mixing and interaction are limited have a less than optimal learning environment. The differences between rich and poor and the gap between white, black and brown students will widen after years of trying to narrow them down.
And yet, if the schools make it, personal schooling is a great improvement for many students over distance learning. The class sizes would be smaller and the children would experience more than just lessons. They would get camaraderie, connection to a larger community, physical activity and more direct help in mastering their lessons.
But the Wenns are big. Governor Gavin Newsom's current budget includes draconian cuts in education, while schools have to pay for masks, hand sanitizers, temperature controls, more bus rides, and the like. In Los Angeles and much of the rest of the nation, we have failed to bring COVID 19 cases to the level that Israel had before the school reopened. This increases our chances of school-related outbreaks. Administrators are concerned about liability. If they cannot afford the necessary tests, etc., will they be held responsible for the resulting infections?
Massive federal aid is required. Aside from spending on public health and economic relief, it's hard to imagine that the nation has a higher priority than its education system. Neither party wins by starving to public schools or making them less secure.
With all the very real budget problems that Sacramento is facing, heads of state can mitigate the blow. The state funds schools according to a formula based on the student's visit. Rather than sticking to this formula, California should commit to spending the full amount it has allocated for K-12 training, regardless of how many students it actually participates, and to pass the funds on to students who have fallen back the most. If a large number of parents switched to home school and school enrollment fell significantly overall, this would mean more money for those on campus. Good.
After all, the central topic for the beginning of the school year should be preparation. Educators could not have foreseen the sudden closure of their campus in March, but the same is not true for the future. A recurrence of COVID-19 cases could lead to shutdowns in autumn or winter.
The new school year should begin by equipping all students with devices and broadband for distance learning and instructions on how to use them. At school, students should practice distance learning with the help of parents who set up and operate the smart devices that their children take home. Teachers should work with families in a variety of ways to reach them when students do not sign up for classes or assignments.
Teachers also need to be trained on how to teach online - employing children on the computer screen is much more difficult than in a classroom - with at least a few live lessons and more lessons required. It would help if California Teachers Assn. agreed to that. The vulnerable need jobs outside of campus that protect them. If you have young children, you need good childcare when the schools are closed. It is helpful if students work alternately on and off campus. Teachers have more opportunities to practice their skills. Real grades instead of pass / fail or A-for-everyone guidelines would motivate more students to get to work.
This spring was tough. Reopening schools will almost certainly be more difficult. However, it is unacceptable to let students stumble through another year without real learning.
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