Opinion: Equitable decisions and policy are crucial to success for LBUSD students during and after the pandemic

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Juan M. Benitez, Long Beach Unified School District Board of Education vice president and District 3 representativeand does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

As our district pivots and makes critical decisions regarding how to best move forward in the mist of the COVID-19 global pandemic while remaining true to our mission and vision of providing the highest quality education to every student every day, I want to share a few reflections that I hope will guide our community conversations and strategic thinking about the current and future context of public education.

The transition to Home Learning Opportunities for our 72,000 student district has been a herculean task made possible by an unprecedented effort by teachers and staff as well as students, parents, and guardians. I am proud and deeply grateful to all the teachers, staff, parents and community members who have doubled down on their commitment to students’ safety, health, well-being and educational success. While the challenges associated with transitioning aspects of “schools” to “homes” are not outweighed by the absolute need to do so, there are huge implications at stake for our most vulnerable and highest-needs students.

Our Board of Education just named our new superintendent, Jill Baker, to take the baton from our long-serving superintendent Chris Steinhauser. I want to wholeheartedly thank Mr. Steinhauser for all his years of service and congratulate Dr. Baker on her selection. I look forward to working with her in her new capacity. Now, more than ever, equity needs to be the driving force for all of our thinking and all of our efforts. Equity should be at the center of our district, state, and national educational strategies. I am extremely concerned that school-related transitions to online/distance/virtual learning will not just undo or stunt some of the growth and improvements that our highest-needs students have made in recent years, but that these transitions will exacerbate inequities and opportunity gaps that are inherently tied to race, ethnicity, income, immigrant status, learning ability, geography, household composition, housing and many other factors, social constructs, and social determinants of a healthy community.

Over two-thirds of LBUSD’s 72,000 students are on free or reduced lunch, more than 10,000 students are on special Individual Education Plans, and more than 85% of the district are students of color. In District 3, the area that I represent—Downtown, Alamitos Beach, the AOC7 neighborhoods and parts of Central Long Beach—the majority of students live in renter households. All eight elementary schools and the middle school that I represent are Title I schools that receive special dedicated federal funds for low income households. Our teachers and staff are making valiant efforts to continue educating and feeding students at this critical time in our history. We are also at a pivotal crossroads educationally with regard to the majority of our students who are immigrants, English Learners, Special Education, foster, and socio-economically disadvantaged students of color.

All our students face many, many challenges: closed classroom for months, no June graduation ceremonies, no social interaction with their friends, no sports, no prom, closed libraries, playgrounds, and parks, and many other factors that support student learning and well-being. As a district, as a state, and as a nation, now is the time to protect against irreparable damage to an entire generation of students. We must commit all of our resources, as limited and depleted as they may be, and all of our efforts, as difficult and challenging as circumstances are, to ensure the success of this generation of students

I am a parent of a student in our district and I know that providing Chromebooks, internet access, meals and learning opportunities are all absolutely essential and necessary. But these essential services will prove to be insufficient if we do not make equity central to any and all of our educational strategies and decisions in the midst of these uncertain times. Let’s make certain that equity, inclusion, access and opportunity do not get lost in the illusion of what could become an ever-elusive education in the era of COVID-19. It will require local, state and federal resources, strategic thinking, policy-making, and a shift in priorities.

Our online instruction will change once students return from Spring Break on April 20, and we will only have a few weeks to make this work even if school closures get extended into the summer or beyond. There is talk of the expense related to summer school and the logistical and fiscal challenges of the academic calendar and fiscal year but let’s be mindful that we have a history in this country that when things go well, they get better for the people at the top and when things go poorly, they get worse for the people at the bottom. Advocacy, organizing, mobilizing and resources are the only way we are going to get through this. ALL of us need to support ALL students, but particularly those who will have the hardest time maintaining, sustaining and ultimately “catching up.” We need everyone’s help but we need to lead with equity, be grounded in and centered on equity, and equity must be woven through and embedded in all of our strategic thinking and decision-making during this crisis and in the subsequent healing and recovery. It will be much easier to recover from a very tough time than to heal if the majority of students have deeper, life-long wounds.

Public education is already severely underfunded by most accounts. It is even more critical that every cent in this country and state is invested in efforts to support students. Yes, the bottom line for many will be that students have to do the online learning but it is also clear that home learning opportunities highly favor families and households with more social, human and cultural capital and resources. Indeed, in some ways, home learning may even magnify what we already know about traditional schooling: Vulnerable students will be more isolated with less support in highly challenged home lives.

I know that my district, District 3 (Downtown and Central Long Beach), District 2 (Central and West Long Beach), and District 1 (in North Long Beach) will pay the proverbial highest price for any inequities but we do have examples around the world of high quality educational systems being effective by being valued and resourced even during very challenging economic circumstances.

Public education is our last hope to not cause irreparable damage to an entire generation of poor, vulnerable, special needs, students of color that make up the majority of our district. If they fall further behind and become less engaged, more vulnerable… it becomes seemingly insurmountable to come back from that.

Our health and economic recovery and prosperity will not occur without robust educational strategies and resources for our most affected students, their families and communities in this pandemic crisis. This may not be what people want to hear at this time, but it needs to be lifted up at the forefront of any education conversations now and in the future if our students will have any hope at all of succeeding and thriving in a better tomorrow.

Now is the time to come together and we will get through this. Let’s prove that Long Beach can demonstrate that even during a pandemic, with a struggling economy, in a time of unprecedented uncertainty, we can continue to have a world-class education system. We owe it to students, our families, and to our communities. This can be a time that people will always remember when public education in Long Beach gave hope to all when hope seemed elusive to many.

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