Education

COMMENTARY: Ensuring equality: the struggle to reopen California’s public schools amid the pandemic

Credit: Allison Shelley for American Education

A fifth-grade student watches a lesson on her computer during school.

My daughter attends a Berkeley public elementary school that borders a private school. She doesn’t really attend — she Zooms — but the private school kids attend in person. Such juxtapositions can be found across California:

Little wonder, then, that Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) alluded to the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education when he denounced remote learning’s web of “state-sanctioned segregation.”

The 1954 decision famously declared segregated schools “inherently unequal.” Rather than integrate their public schools though, parents in eleven Southern states abandoned them for private “segregation academies.” O’Donnell could have had those in mind when he lamented, “Some kids get to go, and some don’t.”

Assembly Member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) has introduced Assembly Bill 10 to spur reopening and stanch the learning gap caused by remote learning. Starting on March 1, AB10 reads, districts “shall publicly adopt a plan to offer in-person instruction within two weeks” after “public health orders” permit them to open.

This is a step in the right direction. AB10 however, as with the Brown decision, threatens to undercut the stated goals of its authors. The Brown decision stipulated that integration proceed “with all deliberate speed,” which Southern school districts translated into all deliberation and no speed. AB10 is mired with similar ambiguities. These include:

  • Which “public health orders” are districts obliged to follow? California merely permits school districts to reopen once a county has spent two weeks in the red coronavirus tier; counties, however, can forbid schools from reopening.
  • Why adopt rather than implement a plan? The proposed legislation does not set the timing for districts to reopen, only to “adopt a plan.” Why not adopt now in order to implement when public health officials permit?
  • What counts as a reopening plan? Ting’s bill says that’s up to districts to decide to the “greatest extent possible.” That can mean anything.

The head of the California Teachers Association, E. Toby Boyd, insisted that he was “not willing to sacrifice one child, one adult” to Covid. The sentiment is laudable, but its logic lamentable. If the risk of a single death is sufficient to keep schools closed, then schools would be hard-pressed to ever reopen, especially during flu season.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren adopted the unfortunate “all deliberate speed” phrase in order to secure a unanimous court, which more forceful language would have precluded. Unless AB10’s authors are engaged in a similar exercise in self-defeating appeasement, they need to resolve the bill’s ambiguities.

Better yet, they could join forces with Assembly Member Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin). His Open California Schools Act calls for “full-time in-person instruction” within two weeks from the time that “state and county health orders” permit it. Kiley and Ting have the opportunity to pool their efforts and bring bipartisan harmony to the nonpartisan notion that education is best conducted in person. They also have the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new “Safe Schools for All” plan.

The stakes could hardly be higher.

In the 10 months that have passed since the pandemic prompted school closures, we’ve learned that the toll of remote learning far outweighs the minimal risk of reopening. Wearing masks and social distancing, notes Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of Covid emergency response at UCSF, are as effective now as a vaccine will be (90%).

Moreover, both of these mitigation measures are supported by the governor’s plan. Among other things, it promises to provide millions of free masks, while permitting a distance-learning option for parents who prefer it, which will, in turn, reduce the number of students attending in person.

If in-person schooling can be made to work for some, then it can be made to work for all to the maximum extent that public health officials permit.

What the Supreme Court said about ending school segregation a decade after Brown can be said about ending remote learning as we approach its one-year anniversary: “The time for mere ‘deliberate speed’ has run out.”

•••

Mark Brilliant is associate professor of history and American studies at UC Berkeley, father of two Berkeley Unified School District students and member of BUSDparents.com.

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