Two C words — COVID-19 and costs — are making decisions about reopening schools and resuming education for all students tricky and challenging. Increasing virus cases and underfunded schools have created ongoing nightmares, worsened by the economic downturn for the past four months.
Children’s reduced lives, especially in elementary grades, have been unreasonably interrupted. They need to be in school this fall, but how? Districts, teachers and administrators are trying to work out teaching plans, but no decision can deal with uncertainties and problems.
The pandemic has changed our lives, drastically in many cases, and required students to stay home for distant learning. Some are doing well working on Internet connections, but a large number of children are losing ground.
My experience as a former secondary English and social science teacher and volunteer in education over the years confirms the need for children to get back into classrooms as soon as possible. Although the virus has taken over our health and lifestyles, it has a different effect on children. The American Academy of Pediatrics in Southern California, Chapter 2 for our region stated its perspective.
“The risk of COVID-19 transmission among groups of children has not been well-studied, but current research suggests that the risk is much lower than the adult population,” according to AAP-CA2. “The negative effects of missing in-person educational time as children experience prolonged periods of isolation and lack of instruction, however, is clear. Children rely on schools for multiple needs, including but not limited to education, nutrition, physical activity, socialization and mental health. Special populations of students receive services for disabilities and other conditions that are virtually impossible to deliver online.”
Looking back to Friday, March 13, Santa Barbara teachers faced closing down classrooms with little training to provide distance learning on computers by the following Monday. They were told to go home and teach from there for the next three weeks. It has lasted much longer.
Their work became unexpected and different at all grade levels, including texting and contacting students who could not communicate through computers. Although schools sent computers to students, not all adapted to virtual learning. A good teacher’s ordinary day is hard work with constant efforts to upgrade students, more than we can imagine. Since March, their duties and efforts have expanded well above normal.
Even if districts open classrooms this August, not all families will accept the decision, and some affluent families may opt for private schools. Many public schools are discussing hybrid options for classroom teaching and distance learning for those who object to children being on campus. Another hybrid option includes two days in the classroom with the rest on virtual learning. Some teachers are concerned about their own virus risk or have been overwhelmed with unexpected demands. They may choose to take a leave or retire.
Young children wearing masks also is questionable.
“Our concern is that recently issued guidelines for schools reopening … are not realistic or even developmentally appropriate for children,” said Dr. Alice Kuo, president of the AAP-CA2. “For example, wearing masks throughout the day can hinder language and socio-emotional development, particularly for younger children.”
The second C word — costs — has much to do with the success of reopened classrooms and bringing students up to pre-COVID-19 academic standards. Even COVID-19 basic health requirements will be costly. Districts alone can barely cover regular expenses, while federal, state and local budgets are not adequate to help raise schools up to acceptable education levels. Funding, unions and supervision must act to cover these losses.
This spring, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget recommended a 10 percent reduction in educational funding. The current, reworked budget being passed will keep average funding up, but delay its payments. They do not seem to target money for low-income students or filling funding gaps for certain schools in poorer districts. Government budgets should base funding on specific amounts rather than on daily attendance rates.
A constitutional question — how to create equality for every American? A major way would be to bring all schools, particularly inefficient public schools throughout the state, up to acceptable levels. When teaching nearly all black and Latino ninth-grade students in an East Oakland junior high, I worked with few students close to being competent in academics and social abilities — two important factors for successful learning and adulthood.
Last fall, Sonali Kohli of the Los Angeles Times wrote about how the average reading proficiency among California schools is 50.9 percent, and 39.7 percent for math proficiency. One of the lowest in the L.A. schools had only one out of 18 tested students who could read. If educational systems were brought up to hiring well-trained teachers and supporters such as librarians and counselors, it would diminish racial inequities far into the future. Will California do it? Until then, too many children are being left behind.
As Nelson Mandela from South Africa said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.