Perhaps we should stop pretending that California is going to educate its children this fall—and instead transfer our educational resources into COVID-19 control.
As the pandemic worsens, California parents, teachers, and students have been distracted by a bitter war over how to reopen education. But as a combatant in the conflict—and the father of three public school students—I’ve learned that reopening education is a war that can’t be won. None of the outcomes that people are fighting for—the full reopening of schools, a shift to distance learning, or a hybrid of in-person and online education—will work. In fact, all three threaten to weaken the educational system and leave our children further behind.
Reopening schools while society fails to respond to COVID’s spread could be a disaster. Yes, pediatricians make a compelling case for return, and some working parents don’t feel they have a choice. But many teachers and students, understandably wary of health risks, won’t show up for school, creating short-term chaos on campuses and deepening long-term educational problems, from enrollment collapses to teacher shortages. And as a political matter, reopening this fall is impossible, because of the opposition of California’s powerful teachers’ unions and because of the support of President Trump, whose demands for reopening have discredited the whole idea.
Unfortunately, distance learning—which is how many school districts must start the year under state guidelines—is unlikely to produce real learning. State officials and teachers’ unions have imposed limits that rob online instruction of any potential value.
Instead California’s children, under distance learning, are going to fall further behind or slip away from school all together. Many kids lack the technology and resources to participate in virtual schooling. Worse still, distance learning forces parents and other family members to serve as in-home educators, adding stress for people who are fighting to hold onto jobs, or look for new ones, in the most rapid economic collapse of our lifetime.
The third major option, hybrid plans that the state and many districts are promoting, could be even more disastrous. These hybrids fuse all the problematic aspects of in-person and distance learning into unmanageable messes, with kids on campus some days and not others.
Hybrids are so costly, both in money and personnel, that it’s hard to understand how the state and districts would pay for them. You’d need COVID testing capacity and protective equipment that California lacks for in-school time, and technological investments—in laptops, internet, teachers, and tech support—that California hasn’t produced for distance learning. You’d also need more teachers. Look for school districts that adopt hybrids to fall apart, creating massive enrollment losses as students who are better off flee for private or home-school options, and students who are poorer flee school entirely.
All three unworkable options have another huge cost: the time and money that educators, administrators, parents, and students are devoting to try to make them work. It’s a crime against society to waste dollars and hours on faux education when we don’t have enough people or resources devoted to our biggest problem, the pandemic itself.
So why don’t we all ditch school now?
The logic is straightforward. Since we can’t or won’t get back to safe and effective schooling until the pandemic is under control, the fastest way back to school is to repurpose the education system to control the pandemic.
There are so many opportunities if we make California’s top educational priority the pandemic. Billions could be pulled from California’s $80-billion education budget to supplement all aspects of COVID response, from testing to the development of treatments. The schools also could provide personnel for the fight. To manage the virus, California needs an army of contact tracers—estimates range from at least 40,000 to maybe as many 100,000.
And California has more than 300,000 teachers.
Teachers and school staffers, as trusted members of communities, are ideal for contact tracing work, which requires intimate conversations with all kinds of people. They also could help staff up the additional testing sites we so desperately need, and fill other emergency roles in the strained health system.
Students, too, have an important role to play. State officials have maintained that they don’t have enough people to enforce rules on masking and social distancing, but that’s because they haven’t tapped California’s approximately 6 million school-age children. Give the kids authority to accost anyone without a face covering, and I expect you’d see compliance approach 100 percent. (I recently saw this practice in action, watching second graders successfully guilt adults into wearing masks.)
I don’t make this suggestion modestly. And it’s hardly radical. Moving educational resources to the pandemic response wouldn’t be an abandonment of education. Our state officials, our school districts, and organizations representing school employees have already given up on any real education for the 2020-21 school year. They just haven’t been honest enough to admit it publicly.
The state has reduced the number of instructional minutes (by an hour a day, for grades 4-12) and suspended assessments of student learning. Requirements for live instruction under distance learning are loose and hard to enforce. Worse still, the state budget has been changed to ensure that schools are funded—and teachers are paid—whether or not students show up.
This departure from the standard policy of tying school funding to student attendance is sometimes called “hold harmless.” It means that a school will receive the same funding it had based on attendance back in February before the pandemic. This creates incentives for schools to abandon—or just “lose track”—of hundreds of thousands of poor, special-needs, and hard-to-reach students across the state.
The same “hold harmless” provision hurts responsible and public-spirited schools, districts, and charters that step up to serve needy students in a crisis. Those schools will not get additional funding to cover additional students.
One very cynical way of thinking about our educational reality is that the education system has used the crisis to protect its funding while relieving itself of its core responsibilities. I think such a judgment is too harsh. Teachers unions’ resistance to reopening schools in a pandemic, and to participating in our poorly designed distance learning, makes sense.
What does not make sense is to keep funding schools—the biggest piece of our state budget—when our pandemic response is starved for public resources. The best solution is to shift our teachers and school employees to an all-out effort against COVID.
It won’t be easy for teachers and school staff to switch to work for which they’ve not been trained. But such a shift is necessary for more than fighting COVID. The shift should provide justification for continuing school funding and educator salaries. And in the longer term, shifting school staff into emergency response will answer a mounting political criticism: Why are scarce California tax dollars supporting diminished education and closed schools, especially when pandemic response is lagging?
Requiring schools, teachers, staff and even students to focus on the pandemic would also provide some educational lessons. We might show ourselves, and our kids, that we can move beyond conflict and debate in a crisis. We might demonstrate that our state can successfully address huge challenges with flexibility and shared sacrifice.
Our schools will need those lessons, and that sense of unity, when it eventually becomes time to go back to school safely, and educators face the daunting challenge of making up for all the lost education that COVID is costing us.