Canceling School for COVID-19 Cheats California’s Kids

When This Epidemic Ends, Schools Should Make Up the 50 Days of Instruction Our Kids Are Missing Now

Canceling School for COVID-19 Cheats California’s Kids | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Students wait outside of John Marshall High School after being let out early following an announcement of a district-wide closure caused by the coronavirus threat on March 13. Courtesy of Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press.

Not one day.

Our kids should not lose one day of school, not a single day of instruction, to the coronavirus.

Let me be clear: I’m not arguing against closing schools right now, in the midst of the pandemic. Flattening the curve of infections comes first.

But the coronavirus must not be an excuse for permanently losing critical days of actual instruction.

Here’s the principle we need: California must guarantee that our schools will make up every single day of instruction now being missed. Those days could be made up with mandatory summer school if public health officials say it’s OK to open—or by adding days to the next school year.

But California school districts are pointedly refusing to make any such commitments. Instead, 99 percent of our districts, serving 6 million students, have canceled instruction indefinitely, without any plans—or apparent intentions—of making them up.

We tell ourselves that California is a global capital of innovation fueled by education, and that children come first. But our actions don’t show it.

With Governor Newsom saying that schools likely won’t reopen during this school year, the Golden State is hurtling toward the permanent cancelation of more than 50 days of instruction. That’s nearly one-third of the 180-day school year.

Losing those school days would be a betrayal of our children.

In education, nothing is more important than instructional time with good teachers. Research is clear that the more time kids get with the teachers, the more they learn. Studies show that kids often never catch up after missing extensive amounts of school; poorer kids are most at risk.

Even in good times, California fails to give its children enough instructional time. The state refuses to provide full-day kindergarten, despite promises from generations of progressive politicians to do just that. And for the older grades, a full school day here really only takes half the day, with five hours or less of daily instruction through grade eight. (High schools are supposed to get six hours.)

Officially, California is supposed to provide 180 days of school, but the state habitually does less than that. During the Great Recession, the school year was shortened to 175 days (and some districts cut back even more days). And, as the nonprofit news site CalMatters has shown, individual school districts have made additional cancelations of instruction routine. The reasons for such cancelations vary—from wildfires, to shooting threats, to classrooms in disrepair—but they have reached record numbers in the past two years.

Taken together, our educational decisions during this pandemic send two unmistakable messages. First, education is a non-essential service in our state. Second, when it comes to education in the pandemic, Californians are not all in this together—we are on our own.

Even in this context, the speed with which California’s education leaders have abandoned instruction during the COVID-19 crisis is stunning. Before many schools had closed, the top education lobbies—including associations representing school superintendents and school boards, and the unions for teachers—were aggressively lobbying for two things. First, they demanded the cancelation of instructional time. And second, they sought guarantees that school districts would get all their state funding and teachers would get all their pay, even if they didn’t actually teach anyone.

Given the power of these education lobbies, it didn’t take long for the state to agree to keep up funding for school days without any school. Of course, Newsom and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond have publicly demanded that schools find way to keep teaching students online. But these are rhetorical fig leaves.

It’s clear that little education will happen with the schools closed. Many students, especially poor ones, don’t have the technology or parental supervision to take classes from home. And teachers also lack technology and time, particularly since they are stuck at home dealing with their own families.

Another reason why online education won’t work now is that Newsom, Thurmond, and other politicians previously supported rules and regulations to discourage online education, including a moratorium just last year on virtual charter schools.

Indeed, one irony of this situation is that the state’s most dependable online infrastructure for education is its system of state assessment tests. And state officials, seeking to please the unions who despise such tests, already canceled this spring’s exams, claiming they wanted to spare students the stress of taking tests during the COVID-19 crisis. The tests should be reinstated, precisely so we can determine what this lost instruction time cost kids.

Taken together, our educational decisions during this pandemic send two unmistakable messages. First, education is a non-essential service in our state. Second, when it comes to education in the pandemic, Californians are not all in this together—we are on our own.

I have three boys in our local public elementary school, and in their communications to me, district officials and teachers have made clear that I must be the boys’ instructor for as long as the schools are out. My wife, a health care journalist covering the COVID-19 story, understandably cannot assist me.

Even with the advantages of a college degree and experience leading university courses, I am failing as a teacher.

All three boys attend the same public elementary school, but they are in different grades with different teachers. Forced to learn together here at home, these brothers too often prefer fighting to focusing on their schoolwork. On my first day as instructor at the Mathews Home Academy, my first grader shoved my fifth grader into a coffee table, leaving a massive gash that forced me to cancel afternoon classes and take the injured party to urgent care.

So far, I haven’t been able to get my boys to complete the handful of assignments that their teachers have sent home. Heck, I can’t even get them to watch more PBS, as Newsom and L.A. Unified superintendent Austin Beutner advise parents to do. One problem: I am frequently distracted by having to do my own job from home.

My sorry “teaching” and the uneven instructional efforts of other parents, siblings, grandparents, babysitters (or, in the reality for too many, children home alone) are no substitute for actual instruction. But that won’t matter to the state and local school districts who will end up counting this time as instructional. (Note to parents and other home instructors: Don’t hold your breath waiting to get paid for your teaching hours.)

Our kids will never get these days back, unless we demand the only effective replacement for lost days of instruction: more days of actual instruction.

The politicians will respond by pleading poverty. They will say it will cost the state billions more to make up what’s being lost now. And they will say the new recession has dried up the revenues the state would need to do this.

But education is the state’s constitutional duty, and California owes it to its children—and our collective future—to find that money. Put this way: if this crisis justifies billions in bailouts to businesses from airlines to banks, then there’s no financial or moral reason why our kids should lose any of the instruction time they’re owed.

Not one day.


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