Sunday, May 16

Opinion: Gov. Newsom’s plan to reopen schools raises student safety concerns

Gov. Gavin Newsom's multibillion-dollar proposal to incentivize schools to return to in-person instruction amid the state's slow vaccine rollout contributes to inequity. The money should instead go to schools struggling to continue remote learning. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

This post was updated Jan. 24 at 8:21 p.m.

Money can buy school supplies and faster internet for students, but it can’t buy them protection from COVID-19.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is using incentives to get kids back to school anyway.

Earlier this month, Newsom announced his proposal for California’s K-12 budget, totaling more than $88 billion for the 2021-2022 school year. Within the budget is an allocation of $2 billion meant to get students from transitional kindergarten to sixth grade back to school by mid-February. The governor’s plan would give schools at least $450 per student if they agreed to COVID-19 testing requirements and negotiated a safety plan with local unions.

Several large school districts criticized Newsom’s plan, which needs the approval of the state Legislature before it can go into effect. The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted to authorize suing California over Newsom’s plan so they can gain funding without having to reopen.

While it’s not hard to see that students, especially elementary school students, need to get back to in-person learning, incentivizing local school districts to lure kids back to school without wide-scale distribution of a vaccine will only lead to sick students and teachers. And though young people generally bounce back from COVID-19 fairly easily, there is still no telling what long-term health effects the virus may have. Instead, the state Legislature should provide funding for schools to buy their students necessary supplies to make online learning as effective as possible.

It’s undoubtedly hard for students to learn online. One study conducted by researchers at Victoria University found that some students’ math skills faced an annual decline of up to 25% and a 10% drop in English language skills in a remote learning environment compared to a classroom setting.

But academic losses are not the only challenges these students are facing. Genu Lee, a first-year global studies student who has a brother in third grade, said that remote learning cannot replicate the social aspect of in-person schooling.

“There isn’t really a time or a place to talk to each other,” Lee said. “The only thing they can really do is maybe, like, private message each other.”

Instant messaging and having real face-to-face connections with other students are vastly different, and it’s not a leap to say that students who aren’t engaging often with their classmates inside of schools may find it difficult to communicate outside their walls.

But the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t stop at the fences surrounding campuses. While the virus doesn’t necessarily spread faster in schools, it doesn’t slow down either.

Recent spikes in COVID-19 cases have some educators hesitant to reopen. Georgia Lazo, principal of the UCLA Lab School, said the schools will not reopen due to recent COVID-19 data in LA and because of LA County Department of Public Health expert Dr. Barbara Ferrer’s recommendation that schools remain closed.

UCLA Lab School performed a pilot program for approximately 40 students over the summer. The program ran from the end of June to the middle of July.

Yet, in spite of some educators’ hesitance, lawmakers are pushing for schools to reopen. Assembly member Sydney Kamlager, who represents California’s 54th Assembly District where UCLA resides, expressed her support for Newsom’s education budget and reopening schools.

“Our most vulnerable students depend on schools for medical care and behavioral support, internet access, and three meals a day,” Kamlager said. “Each day of remote learning puts them further behind their peers, deepening the inequities that have always existed in our state’s educational system,” she said in an emailed statement.

There is little question about the existence of inequities in the public education system, but sending students back to schools where they might contract COVID-19, which has ravaged at-risk communities over the past year, isn’t solving these inequities. If anything, it could further harm students who need the most help.

To be fair, California isn’t forcing kids to go back to school. The state government would require schools to give parents the choice between distance learning and sending their children back to the classroom, while still providing full funding for the school district so long as an in-person option is available.

But continuing at home isn’t a viable option for all parents. If both members of the family work, it’s much easier to send kids back to school than to beg a family member or pay a family friend to watch them. And simply by knowing the way distance learning affects education, it’s unlikely that parents would choose for their child to fall behind their peers.

In other words, the choice isn’t one many parents will make, and students and teachers will just have to hope they don’t contract the virus.

Incentivizing schools to reopen may seem financially beneficial for the districts in the short run, but COVID-19 safety shouldn’t have a dollar amount on it.

And schools shouldn’t have to weigh funding against their students’ health.

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