Joe Mathews: Why California’s decision to shut down schools for a year should be investigated

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Courtyard tables sit empty at Culver City Middle School, March 1, 2021. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

The debate continues to rage in Washington, D.C. over whether an independent bipartisan commission is needed to investigate the storming of the U.S. Capitol earlier this year. Opponents of the idea say that with more than 500 people already charged in the attack, it’s not clear any new facts will come to light. But supporters of the move say such a commission is necessary to avoid politicization and get to the roots of what happened.   

In this edition of Zocalo’s “Connecting California,” commentator Joe Mathews says, “If America needs a 1/6 commission, then California must have a 3/13 commission.” That’s to probe the decision to shut down public schools during the height of the pandemic.

Read Mathews’ column below:

If America needs a 1/6 commission, then California must have a 3/13 commission.

When an irreplaceable foundation of our free society is threatened — as our national democracy was during the January 6 insurrection — an independent body must investigate so that there’s accountability for those responsible, and the attack doesn’t happen again. For these same reasons, the ongoing California cataclysm that began on March 13, 2020 needs its own commission.

On that fateful day, California, facing a new pandemic, shut down the foundation of its economy, its culture, and its civic life — our schools. The closures came with little notice or planning, and in defiance of California’s constitutional guarantee of education for its children. 

Fifteen months later, the schools are still not fully open. And California has yet to determine the damage this ongoing catastrophe is doing to kids, families, teachers, schools, and the future of the state itself.

And the worst may be in front of us. The 3/13 school closures, having never been explained or credibly justified by legal or health standards — leave us with a frightening precedent going forward. 

If we don’t establish a clear rule for when schools must be open, what is to prevent state or local officials from shutting them down indefinitely at their whim? If we don’t figure out how to better protect our schools in this century of apocalypse, how will we ever guarantee California’s children the education they deserve?

A 3/13 commission should start by getting a blow-by-blow accounting of behind-the-scenes decision-making about all aspects of our schools over the last 15 months. Was closing schools really necessary back on 3/13? Why were schools caught so flat-footed? Were there systemic failures in planning for such an emergency? And were there moments when schools could have been safely reopened but weren’t? 

Then the commission should investigate our leadership. Why did Governor Newsom repeatedly promise to open schools — and never use his emergency powers to actually open them?  Which people, agencies, and institutions were really making decisions? What decisions were mistakes? And which mistakes were the result of raw politics, deceit, or donations to the favored charities of the powerful?

To answer these questions, the 3/13 commission must have the power to compel testimony and subpoena records — from schools, governments, companies, and unions. The commission also should have the authority to assess California students — so it can determine just how much children have lost academically, socially, and emotionally as a result of closures and reduced instruction time. This power is necessary because school districts and the state have cancelled or delayed assessments — effectively covering up the human costs of their school closing.

Of course, the commission must also look beyond the present and past, and give us guidance for the future. What specific lessons can we take from the failures of education during the pandemic, and how do we apply them? How should we make up the instructional time lost to COVID — or future emergencies that necessitate closures? 

And, finally, what changes must California make — in school buildings, finances, and labor and educational law — so that its students never experience prolonged closures again? 

Think this is too much? You’re wrong. 

Even before the pandemic, California’s public schools were being closed more often. In 2018, CalMatters found schools were shut for record amounts of time because of disasters, emergencies, maintenance crises, or shooting or bomb threats. And since 3/13, we’ve seen how easy it is to close schools, and how hard it is to reopen them. 

Of course, the governor, facing a recall, is unlikely to support a 3/13 commission. So, the legislature should require such a commission — either as a condition of its support for the budget, or as a condition of extending Newsom’s emergency powers. If the legislature won’t act, Californians who care about the future should create a 3/13 commission via ballot initiative.



Darrell Satzman