Guest commentary: Gov. Newsom’s new plan for schools during the pandemic overlooks our most urgent needs

A young student takes part in distance learning in her family's garage in October.

School leaders representing nearly one-quarter of California’s students called on Gov. Gavin Newsom this week to work with them toward the shared objective of reopening school classrooms when it is safe and responsible to do so. Gov. Newsom’s recent proposals, we cautioned, run the risk of diverting much-needed funds away from education and ending the state’s decade-long commitment to equity in education.

As the needs of our students continue to grow during the COVID-19 crisis, we appreciate how Newsom’s “Safe Schools for All” plan has started a useful dialogue around public education ahead of the release of the preliminary state budget this week and how it focused the state on our shared objective to get students back in the classroom as soon as public health conditions allow.

But in overlooking the urgent needs to vaccinate teachers and other staff to reopen classrooms, the plan omits the one action that could have the most dramatic and immediate impact on reducing the spread of the coronavirus in school communities.

California students in kindergarten through second grade would be allowed back on campus when pandemic conditions improve under a proposal announced Wednesday

Testing and vaccinations are necessary first steps to get the virus under control. Without these measures, it will be difficult to impossible for any large school systems to meet the state public health condition for reopening of 28 cases per 100,000 residents [in their county] by Feb. 1. We urge the state to provide a clear timeline for the vaccination of all teachers no later than that date, Feb. 1.

The governor’s proposal is at odds with California’s longstanding efforts to provide more support to students from low-income families. Additional funding that goes only to school districts in communities with low COVID-19 levels will reinforce the disproportionate impact of the virus. Schools in affluent communities where family members can work from home will open with more funding. Schools in low-income communities bearing the virus’s brunt will remain closed with lower funding.

As the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote, “It’s entirely possible that low-income schools will receive the worst of everything — no new funding, kids still stuck learning from home — while those in more affluent areas open for business and get $450 per student extra to boot.”

Any plan to support our school communities must begin with a commitment to get the virus under control. In addition to vaccines, a robust testing program is required. Modeling by our scientific experts shows 90 percent of all virus transmissions on campus can be prevented by a robust testing regime like the one we have created with UC San Diego Health.

For the same $2 billion the governor proposed last week, the state could put in place a surveillance testing system in every large urban district in the state that would dramatically and immediately increase our ability to safely operate.

While each local school will need to address the unique needs of the students and communities it serves, school districts do have common needs. In addition to preparing to safely return students to their classrooms, all students will need help to recover lost learning opportunities and deal with the anxiety and trauma the pandemic has brought into their homes and communities.

Now is the time for the state to embark on a recovery plan to provide more instruction time and more dedicated attention to students. This recovery must be based on acceleration, not remediation. Learning loss recovery plans, including funding for summer school, need to be established now. State funding must be set aside now so districts can begin planning to implement evidence-based strategies, which should be locally driven but could include expanded tutoring, in-person academic and enrichment classes this summer, and mental health supports. Teachers will also need to be offered additional professional development that is focused on intervention and credit recovery.

“Safe Schools for All” proposes to use Proposition 98 dollars to pay for COVID-19 testing and other health-related costs. Proposition 98 specifically sets aside state funds for “instructional improvement and accountability,” including reducing class size; providing supplies, equipment and other services to ensure that students make academic progress; providing professional development to staff to improve and increase the quality of classroom instruction; and paying teacher salaries and benefits. Every dollar of Proposition 98 funds spent on public health costs is one not spent on students in a classroom.

Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, public schools have worked tirelessly to support our students. San Diego Unified alone has distributed more than 80,000 Chromebooks and 9 million free meals. We have launched our own COVID-19 testing program, created our own panel of scientific experts and held hundreds of hours of parent-engagement conversations to help our community negotiate this crisis. In short, our schools, our students and our families have earned the right to a full recovery from the crisis, and that opportunity should not be taken from them by diverting educational funds to non-educational expenses.

California has some of the highest educational standards in the nation and will have the strongest recovery of any state. Together, we can provide our students with the learning experiences they deserve. We are ready to work with all our state leaders to make this recovery a reality and are watching the budget process to make sure the resources provided meet this moment.

Cindy Marten is superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. This commentary was originally published by The San Diego Union-Tribune.


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