Joe Mathews: California should pull the plug on the school year

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Millions of California children will head back to school next week, although most won’t actually be leaving their homes. Billions are being spent to transition to online education that isn’t teaching our kids very much. What if we used that money to fight the pandemic? Photo credit: Alexandra Koch/CC 2.0, via Pixabay

Billions are being spent to transition to online education that isn’t teaching our kids very much. What if we used that money to fight the pandemic?

Millions of California children will head back to school next week, although most won’t actually be leaving their homes. As educators scramble to figure out how to deliver online lessons, Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says we are ignoring an inconvenient truth: distance learning doesn’t work. Mathews says that real learning won’t won’t happen until students return to their classrooms, and that’s not possible right now. So instead of wasting billions of dollars on ineffective lessons, why not use those resources to beat back the coronavirus?

Read Mathews’ column below:

Hard lessons 

Let’s stop pretending that California will educate its children this fall—and instead transfer our educational resources into COVID-19 control.

As the pandemic worsens, California parents, teachers, and students have been distracted by a bitter war over how to reopen education. But as a combatant—I’m father to three public-school students—I’ve learned this war can’t be won. All three reopening strategies—the full in-person reopening of schools, distance learning, or a hybrid of in-person and online education—will weaken the educational system and leave our children further behind.

Reopening schools while society fails to respond to COVID not only could spread the virus but also will cause many teachers and students to stay home, causing enrollment collapses and teacher shortages. Meanwhile distance learning, which is severely limited by state rules and teachers’ unions, will only see children fall further behind (because they lack technology or home set-ups to participate). or slip away from school altogether. Online lessons will deep kids’ screen addictions, and put more stress on parents who are ill-prepared to serve as in-home educators. 

The third major option, hybrid plan, merely fuse all the costs and problems of in-person and distance learning into one unmanageable mess.

So instead of fighting over unworkable school options, why not ditch school instead? 

Since we can’t get back to safe and effective schooling until the pandemic is under control, the fastest way back to school is to repurpose the education system to control the pandemic. 

Take billions from California’s $80 billion-plus education budget for COVID needs, from testing to treatments. Turn tens of thousands of California’s 300,000 teachers into contact tracers the state so desperately needs. Instructors, school staffers, and even students could be re-deployed to open testing sites, and to do the mask enforcement that our local police and health agencies refuse to perform.

Critics would call this an abandonment of education. But the truth is that our state, school districts, and teachers’ unions have already given up on education for 2020-21. They just haven’t admitted it publicly.

The state, at the urging of schools and education lobbies, have reduced the number of instructional minutes (by an hour a day for grades 4-12) and have suspended state assessments of student learning. There is little accountability for teachers who don’t interact with students much during distance learning. And state funding rules have been changed to give schools money whether or not students show up or log on. As a result, look for schools to lose track of poor, special-needs, and hard-to-reach students across the state. 

One cynical way of thinking is that the schools are using the pandemic to protect their funding while relieving themselves of core responsibilities. That judgment is too harsh. Teachers and parents’ resistance to reopening schools in a pandemic, and to participating in our poorly-designed distance learning, makes sense.

What does not make sense is to keep funding schools—the biggest piece of our state budget—when our pandemic response is starved for public resources. 

Shifting the education system will be difficult for all involved. But it’s necessary for fighting COVID, and for sending a clearer message that the pandemic is California’s top priority. It also would protect the education system against a mounting criticism: Why are scarce California tax dollars supporting diminished education and closed schools, especially when pandemic response is lagging? 

Such a shift could end up providing some educational lessons. We might show ourselves, and our kids, that we can move beyond conflict and debate in a crisis. We might demonstrate that our state can successfully address huge challenges with flexibility and shared sacrifice. 

Our schools will need those lessons, and that sense of unity, when it eventually becomes time to go back to school safely, and educators and students face the daunting challenge of making up for all the lost education that COVID is.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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