California Schools and the Elephant in the Classroom

7 mins read

Today my seventh grade twins went back to school for the first time in over a year. We live in California, which sits at the bottom of our 50 states in getting kids returned to school campuses for face-to-face class time with a teacher. While I am thrilled that this day finally came about, I am still dismayed and angry that it took so long. California, which loves to tout itself as a leader, failed its kids this past year. 

Looking for the simplest definition of the word leader, I landed upon this one from Merriam-Webster for English language learners: “someone who guides other people; a person who leads a group, organization, country, etc.” Here in California, with few exceptions, elected officials and public school educators have abdicated their roles as leaders since schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. They have been unwilling to push as hard as they can to get California public school kids back on campus in physical classrooms. 

From the governor to state legislators to city councils, from superintendents to school boards, no officials in the state have acted with the urgency this crisis demands. We don’t need the results of standardized tests to prove the dramatic learning loss that so many kids are suffering. And unfortunately, it seems like the lack of urgency is continuing. What else explains why, when leaders and educators talk about a full fall reopening, their speech centers on words like “should” and “expect”? Simply put, conditional statements are not good enough.

At a local level, our school superintendent expects to have “a return to school as normal” next term but will continue working on its hybrid as a backup plan. So do several of the board members. Yet, who can blame parents for feeling uneasy at the word “expects”? If these school leaders really wanted to send a message that the kids are going back unless something serious happens to throw us off the path, they would use stronger, clearer language. The choice is deliberate. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for a reopening of the state economy on June 15, but his words about school reopening as normal next year are filled with caveats. But if we learned anything from this past 13 months, life under a pandemic is filled with caveats. Reasonable people understand that we can’t control COVID-19 surges or variants or vaccine efficacy, but we can respond with optimism to strong, just leadership. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have many other leaders’ words to parse because, almost universally, they ignore the lack of in-person schooling, like the elephant in the classroom. They can explain this away because they — state legislators, city council members, even the state superintendent of schools — lack authority over local school districts. But they could still flex the power of the bully pulpit. After all, that’s what the California legislature did last winter, when they negotiated for almost two months with the governor over his school reopening proposal, all while millions of kids failed to set foot in a classroom. 

And now, California state legislators have remarkably little to say about public school education in their state, particularly whether schools will reopen under somewhat normal conditions next year. This is what a search returned on April 18 for “California legislature school reopening”:

One notable exception is state Sen. Scott Weiner, who told the San Francisco Chronicle, “Distance learning needs to end for the next school year. Period. Unless something really unexpected happens with the pandemic, we need to go back to full-time, five days a week in-person learning for everyone.” (If there are more legislators who have spoken out forcefully, please let me know, because I would love to thank them!)   

Fortunately for the kids, parents stepped up. Around the state, in both left-leaning and right-leaning districts, parents organized, some working like it was a full-time job to persuade, shame or scare officials into getting kids back in school. In many cases, this grassroots parent advocacy seems to be the determining factor in getting kids, particularly middle school and high school students, back in the classroom.

It didn’t have to be this way. The tasks facing California local school districts are of a previously unimaginable magnitude. Said Heather Hough, the executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, “…I think in times of emergency it calls for more leadership than what we experience in times of peace. We are in this time when every district is asked to do things they have never done before in the face of uncertainty and changing directive and lots of public anger and confusion. This is the time when local control is much harder to do in that setting.”

At this point, many of California’s schools have fewer than two months left. We have almost made it through this long and painful COVID-19 year. And as our thoughts turn to the next school year, which is literally around the corner, parents need more help from the officials and the experts in ensuring that our children return to school full time. 

“We can do this safely,” Newsom said last week. “We know that. Evidence is overwhelming we can safely do this.” It’s time for all our leaders to put the $6.6 billion of AB86 money where their mouths are and step up to get the kids back in school next year!

DemCast is an advocacy-based 501(c)4 nonprofit. We have made the decision to build a media site free of outside influence. There are no ads. We do not get paid for clicks. If you appreciate our content, please consider a small monthly donation.

Rena Korb is a professional writer and editor. Her publications span from children’s books to political commentary. She volunteers as a DemCast California captain and as a leader with her local Indivisible chapter. She also is a lifelong activist, attending her first protest when she was 16. She lives in San Mateo with her family and, in non-pandemic times, enjoys playing Ultimate frisbee.

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