In summary

A survey of 1,200 California parents reveals a tale of two crises with school closures: The immediate challenge of keeping students safe, fed and housed; and then there’s the education equity crisis.

By Elisha Smith Arrillaga, Special to CalMatters

Elisha Smith Arrillaga is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, earrillaga@edtrustwest.org. Twitter @ESArrillaga

There’s an adage among civil rights activists that solutions come from those closest to the problem. That’s especially true now.

With the coronavirus pandemic forcing unprecedented school closures, The Education Trust–West — surveyed 1,200 California parents. What we learned was a tale of two crises.

There’s the immediate challenge — keeping students safe, fed and housed; closing schools in an orderly way; and communicating with parents. Then there’s California’s longstanding education equity crisis.

On the first — the short-term response — more than 8 in 10 parents were satisfied with their school or district’s response. Reaching parents amid school closures is not easy, and teachers, principals and administrators deserve tremendous credit. Still, we must accelerate our work. 

The parent survey tells a troubling story about that second crisis: the equity crisis

Parents are deeply worried — nearly 9 in 10 are concerned about their kids falling behind. Before this pandemic, California faced an epidemic of educational inequality. For decades we have offered the least support to students who need it most. Months-long school closures will hurt all students and exacerbate opportunity gaps.

Breaks in schooling set all students back, but especially families that lack the time, money and job-flexibility to invest in distance learning. Already, black and Latinx parents report heightened concerns about resources needed during school closures. Half of low-income families said they lack digital devices and nearly 40% worry about reliable internet access.

Examples of extended closures are rare, but evidence from overseas shows they have long-lasting consequences. School closures will impact a slide in student learning. Teachers and school leaders must be equipped with tools to stop that slide when schools reopen.

First, crucial statewide ballot measures must move forward. The Schools and Communities First effort would reclaim $12 billion for public schools. Our schools already needed that infusion of funds. It’s even more critical now. Replacing lost school days will be expensive, even as the impending recession crunches state budgets. 

Meanwhile, the California Act for Economic Prosperity would give voters the chance to repeal California’s antiquated Proposition 209. As we recover from this crisis, we will need every available tool to prevent discrimination and boost the workforce.

Second, Lawmakers must not put off ongoing projects because of the new emergency. Education measures will be critical to California’s long-term recovery. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s promised “cradle-to-career” data system is more important than ever as families need to know whether students remain on track. 

Similarly, legislators were poised for a breakthrough with Assembly Bill 1617 which would dramatically boost financial aid applications. With the nation’s financial aid administrators warning that the coronavirus pandemic could crater applications, that bill is even more necessary.

Third, schools and districts must find ways for students to connect with teachers virtually. More than 90% of parents identify direct contact with teachers as a priority. We must avoid a piecemeal approach where student-teacher interaction varies widely across districts, schools and even classrooms. 

Finally, we must reimagine summer. In the face of extended closures, districts and school leaders should allocate staff, time and materials for extended learning time during the summer, prioritizing the most vulnerable students.

Across all our recovery efforts, one common-sense principle must apply: direct the most resources to the families and communities hit hardest.

Some will say COVID-19 is a “great equalizer.” Truthfully, the virus is taking a heavier toll on some communities than others. Black Americans — long denied equal access to health care and economic opportunity — are dying at “alarming” rates. Latinx families are taking the brunt of pay cuts and job losses. Lower-income workers are risking their own health to make ends meet. We are all affected, but we’re not all affected equally.

These are dark, scary times. But they are also filled with hope — stories of  neighbors helping neighbors, of city blocks saluting health workers and of strangers donating to strangers. If we preserve that generosity of spirit, not just through the crisis but through the recovery, we will emerge stronger than ever.

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Elisha Smith Arrillaga is the executive director of The Education Trust-West, earrillaga@edtrustwest.org. Twitter @ESArrillaga

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