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Dan Walters: When will California schools reopen?
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Dan Walters: When will California schools reopen?

From the What you need to know for Friday, October 23 series
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Dan Walters: Prop 13, and a conflict 42 years in the making

Walters, Dan

District-by-district and school-by-school, some of California’s 6.1 million K-12 students are re-entering classrooms that have been shuttered for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most, however, remain locked out and trying, as best they can, to keep up with schoolwork via computer.

It’s no secret that children in relatively affluent homes are faring better. Their parents are more likely to work from home, thus more able to help their kids, and/or are hiring private tutors.

However, most of California’s public school students — about 60%, in fact — are from poor families and/or are “English learners.” They already trailed more privileged peers in educational attainment before COVID-19 reared its ugly head and often lack communication resources and support from parents who must leave home to earn their livings.

The Public Policy Institute of California, using federal data, concludes in a new report “that distance learning has widened gaps for children of color, children in low-income families, and children of less-educated parents.” PPIC reported that 43% of low-income homes don’t have Internet services, that children from those homes are getting relatively less “live contact” with teachers and are receiving less help from their parents.

All kids need to return to the classroom as soon as they can safely do so, but, as usual in education issues, children are caught up in adult political games.

Official state policy allows local schools to reopen if they are in counties that are no longer rated as “purple” in terms of infection. At least 60% of the state’s students live in counties that allow reopening and some have returned to classrooms with restrictions and safeguards, including altered schedules that minimize personal contact.

“We believe that schools can make the decisions even now to bring kids back (for) in-person education,” the state’s top public health official, Dr. Mark Ghaly, said Tuesday.

The state’s big city mayors last week pressed Gov. Gavin Newsom, Ghaly’s boss, to not just grant permission to local officials but work proactively to open schools as soon as possible.

“When the history of this pandemic is written, it will reveal that school shutdowns imposed far greater harms to our children than COVID-19 ever did — particularly for children from low-income families,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who chairs the 13-mayor coalition, said.

However, the powerful California Teachers Association and other school unions are an impediment.

“State guidance is not enough,” CTA president E. Toby Boyd said in a letter to Newsom and other officials. “Relying on individual school districts and local health officials…to coordinate what should be a statewide effort is woefully ineffective and leads to localized and politicized decision making that is damaging our public health, our public education, and our economy.”

The unions want something approaching a guarantee that no one would be at risk before schools are reopened, including testing, contact tracing and elaborate physical changes in schools. But that would take much money and much time and COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon, as Newsom warned in a telecast briefing this week.

“Don’t anticipate or expect that you can go down to a local pharmacy anytime this year and get a vaccination,” Newsom said during a press conference. “We don’t expect mass availability until 2021… Vaccines will not end this epidemic overnight.”

There are no fail-safe options here. Bringing kids back into the classroom carries a certain risk. But continuing to leave them more or less on their own indefinitely — especially children from poor families — is also a very risky business whose downside could damage them and the state for decades.

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