As California’s schools remain largely closed for in-person instruction, the push-and-pull is continuing between locally controlled districts and the state government about whose responsibility it is to reopen campuses.
In a letter signed by superintendents in seven of California’s largest school districts, education leaders pushed back against elements of the plan Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled in late December.
The letter was signed by LBUSD Superintendent Jill Baker as well as the heads of Los Angeles, San Diego, Fresno, Oakland, San Francisco, and Sacramento’s public schools systems.
“On the surface, the draft plan supports the idea of returning students to in-person instruction, but it lacks clarity and consistency and, for now, it disregards many of the actual issues of implementing the plan in schools,” LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said in a statement about the governor’s proposal. Specifically, the LBUSD and other districts want clearer statewide benchmarks for when and how students must return to the classroom.
Newsom’s plan, summarized here, says the state knows schools need to reopen for in-person learning because of the problems with distance learning and the disproportionately negative effect it’s had on on students at or below the poverty level. The plan sets a reopening target of mid-February and commits $2 billion to the effort.
But the seven-page letter from the state’s top superintendents calls attention to what leaders see as several flaws.
“The plan fails to address the needs of the urban school districts that serve nearly a quarter of California students, almost all of whom live below the poverty level,” the letter opens.
The problems they see in Newsom’s plan include the fact that funding is distributed on a per-student basis, which could leave the urban school districts behind given that they have higher costs than districts in more affluent areas. They also want to see money coming from public health funds for COVID testing and vaccinations for students instead of depleting K-12 coffers.
The superintendents also point out that COVID-19 has placed a bigger burden on poorer families, something that will reverberate through urban districts.
“School-based COVID tests in December of children in Los Angeles, with no known symptoms or exposure to the virus, showed almost one in three children in the lowest-income communities had the virus compared with about 1 in 25 in more affluent areas,” the letter says.
The central frustration Baker has cited recently and that’s outlined in the letter is the lack of “a clear state standard for COVID-related health issues in schools, with a requirement for in-classroom instruction to begin when the standard is met.”
The letter states emphatically that “our school districts are ready to reopen classrooms if appropriate steps are taken at the state level.”
Newsom’s plan and the letter from the superintendents is part of a nearly year-long push-and-pull over reopening schools, with both local and state officials acknowledging that distance learning isn’t an effective way to educate students but looking to push the responsibility of exactly when to reopen up to the state level.
Newsom’s plans have continued to push that choice downhill, and state legislators like Long Beach Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell have said they don’t see “urgency” from local districts.
Superintendents including Baker, meanwhile, have said that city, county, and state health departments are the ones who really have the authority on opening schools.
The superintendents’ letter calls on the governor to step in and set a benchmark that forces campuses to open once COVID cases subside to a certain benchmark.
“Once the state COVID standards for safety are met, schools then should be required to be open for in-person instruction,” the letter says. “No local stakeholder—whether a superintendent, school board, labor partner or community organization—should have an effective veto over the reopening of classrooms.”
The LBUSD currently plans to open for hybrid in-person learning on March 1 for those who have selected that option. Currently about 1,600 of the district’s 70,000 students are on campus for preschool or daycare programs.
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