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Connecting California: Instead of bad education choices under COVID-19, let's ditch school

Joe Mathews
Zócalo Public Square
Desert Sands Unified School District digital and offset press operator Tony Fernandez works on decal stickers for social distancing inside the district administration building in La Quinta, Calif., on Wednesday, July 29, 2020. The academic year for DSUSD begins Aug. 19 with distance learning.

Let’s stop pretending that California will 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 — I’m father to three public-school students — I’ve learned that this war can’t be won. All three reopening strategies — the full reopening of schools, distance learning, or a hybrid of in-person and online education — will weaken the educational system and leave our children further behind.

Reopening schools while society fails to respond to COVID not only could spread the virus but also will cause many teachers and students to stay home, causing enrollment collapses and teacher shortages. Meanwhile, distance learning, which is severely limited by state rules and teachers’ unions, will only see children fall further behind (because they lack technology or home set-ups to participate). or slip away from school altogether. Online lessons will deepen kids’ screen addictions, and put more stress on parents who are ill-prepared to serve as in-home educators.

The third major option, the hybrid plan, merely fuses all the costs and problems of in-person and distance learning into one unmanageable mess.

So instead of fighting over unworkable school options, why not ditch school instead?

Since we can’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.

Take billions from California’s $80 billion-plus education budget for COVID needs, from testing to treatments. Turn tens of thousands of California’s 300,000 teachers into contact tracers the state so desperately needs. Instructors, school staffers, and even students could be redeployed to open testing sites, and to do the mask enforcement that our local police and health agencies refuse to perform.

Critics would call this an abandonment of education. But the truth is that our state, school districts, and teachers’ unions have already given up on education for 2020-21. They just haven’t admitted it publicly.

The state, at the urging of schools and education lobbies, has reduced the number of instructional minutes (by an hour a day for grades 4-12) and suspended state assessments of student learning. There is little accountability for teachers who don’t interact with students much during distance learning. And state funding rules have been changed to give schools money whether or not students show up or log on.

As a result, look for schools schools to lose track 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 more students in the crisis. Those schools would 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, out of an abundance of caution.

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 protections for schools and school jobs in the short run. 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.

Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. Email him at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.