Opinion column by Joe Mathews:
We may have good reasons to close our local K-to-12 schools for days or weeks.
But we should keep them open anyway.
That’s because, in California, we are closing schools so routinely that we’re harming children who are already in crisis.
The closures aren’t just a hangover from the pandemic, when we kept schools closed far longer than other American states. The closures reflect deeper problems in the state and our society.
Indeed, school closures surged before the pandemic. An indispensable CalMatters database of school closures, published in 2019, found big increases in the number and duration of closures in the first two decades of this century.
Most closures were in response to wildfires or dirty air. But hundreds of closures were the results of threats of violence to schools. And CalMatters identified more than 370 closures because of disrepair or campus maintenance failures.
More recently, school closures have been occasioned by bad weather, and by conflicts involving the pandemic-ravaged ranks of teachers and school staff. The recent three-day closure of Los Angeles Unified schools, occasioned by a strike by the district’s lowest-paid employees, is only one example.
The only thing worse than the closures is the way we’ve begun to accept these shutdowns. Indeed, media coverage celebrated the L.A. schools strike as a demonstration of worker power. The resulting school closures were mentioned mostly for their impact on families, as if the main role of schools is to provide child care for parents.
But schools are for educating children. And our kids badly need schools that are reliably open, with teachers and staff reliably present, every single day.
No matter what.
You may think that’s an extreme position, but it’s less extreme than the problems kids are facing — including an epidemic of loneliness, a mental health crisis, and substantial declines in student learning.
Twin facts exacerbate all of these crises: Schools are too often closed, and when they are open, too few students are present. Chronic absenteeism — when a student misses at least 10% of school days — has become commonplace. For the 2021-22 school year, chronic absenteeism hit 30% statewide. For Black students, the rate was 42.5%. A new PACE analysis projects such attendance problems persisting into the future.
The absenteeism has been accompanied by big drops in student enrollment. California public schools lost 110,000 students last school year, and the state Department of Finance has projected the loss of another 500,000 by 2031.
The best response to this threat to education is a new requirement—that in California, schools will always be open.
That is easier said than done. Keeping schools open will involve far more than just schools themselves, because closures are related to huge problems — climate change that produces bigger fires and crazy weather, digital media that make it easier to convey threats, the violence and omnipresence of guns in our society, and our failure to build and maintain infrastructure.
Right now, and without delay, the state and all its communities need to harden their campuses for this apocalyptic age. And we need not just better pay for school staff — the point of the LA Unified strike — but comprehensive supports (like child and elder care) for the families of teachers and employees, so that they have no reason not to go to work.
Ending school closures is not just the work of school administrators. Californians, especially parents, need to stop pressing for school closures, and start getting their children to school every day. And the state must apply fiscal pressure and oversight to prevent closures. I’d suggest a new two-to-one rule; for every day a local school or district closes, it has to add two additional school days to the calendar, which come out of its own budget.
Most of all, keeping schools open requires a new mindset. The fires and storms and threats we think of emergencies are no longer emergencies — they are the new normal, and they may well be with us for the rest of our lives. Instead, we must recognize that school closures — and the attendant damage to children — are the real emergencies.
And they are emergencies we have the power to prevent.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.