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Tomorrow, after a year-long wait, nearly half of the elementary school students in the Long Beach Unified School District will return to campus.

As parents across the city wash faded polo shirts and khaki pants, we need to remember all the children in Long Beach who, through no fault of their own, won’t be in the classroom.

The choice of 2.5 hours of in-person instruction or learning only online is not ideal. Many affluent families with the flexibility of at-home jobs or hired caretakers will manage the logistics of returning to school. But for the majority of elementary school children in Long Beach, it’s an impossible scenario.

Families who depend upon on-site after-school programs will find few, if any, open and affordable options. Many workers who only recently returned from COVID-related furloughs or layoffs can’t risk asking their managers for an hour break to pick up their children who they dropped off only a few hours earlier. So, many of our most underserved students will remain virtual as the achievement gap widens.

The district recently shared during a school board workshop that the overall number of K-5 students performing below grade level nearly doubled from last school year from 14% to 27%.  Behind the numbers lie thousands of students who will need targeted approaches in academics, social-emotional support services, and bridging the digital divide.

File photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Thankfully, due to several federal COVID-relief packages, district funding can no longer be the issue.

Last year, LBUSD received $90 million of CARES Act funding based on its percentages of low-income children, English learners, and foster youth. When combined with more than $200 million in district reserves and an estimated $320 million from the December and March pandemic-relief bills, the district has ample resources to allocate funds towards equitable and targeted solutions for those students most in need.

Our school district has the opportunity to make significant investments to narrow achievement gaps and close persistent disparities in educational performance. Low-income children, English learners, foster youth, students experiencing homelessness, and those with disabilities should be the primary beneficiaries of the district’s COVID-relief windfall.

Our children need parents and adults throughout the district to advocate on their behalf. Children don’t have a union or lobbyists.

This time last year, our school board granted Superintendent Jill Baker sole authority to determine when and how to educate LBUSD students during the pandemic. It’s time for the Board to reclaim its power. Decisions should rest with school board members elected to represent parents, caretakers, children, and the community. The process should be transparent and inclusive.

In this unique historical moment, we demand that LBUSD prioritizes a budget that equitably meets the needs of all our children.