by Zach Drucker
With the start of the school year fast approaching and COVID-19 cases quickly rising, plans to reopen schools in San Francisco and California are complicated, to say the least. Even as the nation’s pediatricians and worn-down parents want nothing more than to see schools reopen, education officials are hesitant to send students and staff back to the classroom. The upcoming school year will be unlike any other in recent memory as the American education system adapts to the new coronavirus normal.
Learn more about the impact of COVID-19 on the California and San Francisco school systems by watching sf.citi’s conversation with Mark Sanchez, President of the San Francisco School Board.
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT VS. CALIFORNIA: PLANS (OR LACK THEREOF) TO REOPEN SCHOOLS
The decision about whether or not to send students back to the classroom has become a hot-button topic throughout the country. At the federal level, the Trump Administration has launched an all-out effort to reopen schools. To justify the decision, President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy Devos emphasized the disservice of not opening schools on students’ mental health and their educational and social development. But with almost no direction on how to safely and responsibly reopen schools, the Trump Administration’s move has not been received well by education unions and prominent Democrats.
While some states, including Florida and Missouri, followed the President’s lead and moved forward with plans to physically open schools this year, many states are still contemplating their options. President Trump then threatened to cut off federal funding for school districts that do not comply. That threat appears to have backfired, however, after observers pointed out that the executive branch controls only a sliver of the money dedicated to schools.
Disregarding the President’s threat, California’s two largest school districts, Los Angeles and San Diego, both announced that they would begin the school year with distanced learning. Other California school districts quickly followed suit, with San Francisco and Oakland also forgoing in-person learning.
On July 17, Governor Gavin Newsom made California the first state to officially bar students from returning to the classroom for the start of the 2020-2021 academic year. The state’s official pandemic plan for schools—both public and private—requires that a school’s county must be off of California’s monitoring list for 14 consecutive days before becoming eligible to reopen physically. And once a county reaches that 14-day goal, the decision to reopen schools is left up to individual public health officers and school districts.
At the time of Governor Newsom’s announcement, the state’s monitoring list had 30 of the 58 California counties, including most of the Bay Area, and made up more than 80 percent of the state’s population. With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surging throughout California, the plan has become a welcomed protective measure to slow the spread of the virus.
CALIFORNIA PUBLIC SCHOOLS FACE MOUNTING BUDGET CONSTRAINTS
Dependent on state budgets, public schools faced a funding crisis before the pandemic. That funding shortfall has since compounded in the wake of the pandemic-induced economic downturn as states lost local and state tax revenue and officials began slashing budgets. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, explained that even without COVID-19, a 20 percent budget cut would make reopening schools with the normal level of service out of reach.
While public schools did receive some funding from Congress’s $13.5 billion CARES Act, it amounted to less than one percent of the stimulus package—nowhere close to enough funding. Worse still, this funding did not go directly to public schools as Education Secretary Betsy Devos required that the federal assistance be shared with private schools. In order to reopen for all students, education researchers and school officials continue to emphasize that schools need a massive federal infusion of funding. However, recent Congressional Democratic efforts calling for between $58 billion and $75 billion for public schools do not appear likely to win over enough Republican support.
Unable to rely on assistance from the federal government, California officials designed this year’s budget to front-load resources to fund schools through the year. The budget distributes the payment of $13 billion in school funding obligations to K-12 schools, which the state intends to cover in the short term by having school districts borrow money and through local cash reserves. Undoubtedly this will stretch the state’s resources thin in the coming years.
In the budget, California officials also committed $5.3 billion for education needs linked to the pandemic. Most of that money will be prioritized to ensure equity in schools, with more than half allocated to schools based on the number of students who come from low-income families or are English language learners. This comes as a desperately needed boost to the many California school districts with budget issues, including the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) which entered the summer with a $20 million budget shortfall. For now, California public schools appear to be in the clear on funding for the coming school year, but that could easily change in the COVID-19 era.
COVID-19 TRANSMISSION IN SCHOOLS: STUDENTS AND SCHOOL STAFF
In order to reopen schools, health and education experts need to understand the risk level that in-person learning would pose for both students and school staff. As the science around COVID-19 continues to grow and shift rapidly, a lot about the virus remains unknown. To this day, scientists have not reached a consensus on how COVID-19 affects children.
Scientists have moved past the early days of the pandemic when initial research showed that children had an exceptionally low chance of contracting COVID-19. Now that they have more data on children with COVID-19, health experts have started pointing to emerging research that suggests children are less likely to contract COVID-19 and are at overall lower risk if they do. One well-regarded study even pointed to children being less likely to transmit the virus to adults. These are a few promising signs that have led many government and school officials to feel optimistic about reopening schools. But as is the unfortunate case with this pandemic, COVID-19 continues to counteract encouraging trends.
In recent weeks, a number of studies and reports related to children and COVID-19 have made headlines. Throughout California and Texas, thousands of COVID-19 cases have been linked to childcare facilities. Nearly one-third of Florida’s roughly 287,000 cases have been in children younger than 18. In one Texas county, 85 infants tested positive for COVID-19. A recent report from South Korea found that teens and tweens are more likely to spread the virus within a household than children or adults. And in Israel, an analysis of their recent COVID-19 spike found that nearly half of the reported cases in June were traced back to schools.
Couple widespread uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 with the recent surge in cases, and the risk of reopening schools feels immense. This is especially true for a large demographic of teachers. In the United States, more than one-quarter of public school teachers are over the age of 50 and almost 1.5 million teachers have a condition that makes them more susceptible to COVID-19.
Turning to our state, California teachers reflected that sentiment in a couple of recent surveys. In San Francisco, a rolling survey conducted by United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) showed that 30 percent of teachers said they felt ready to return in person, 29 percent did not feel ready to go back, and 40 percent responded that they were unsure. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) reported that 83 percent of their 18,000 members polled said schools should not reopen in August.
Teachers and other school staff want to serve their students as best they can, but they also do not want to sacrifice themselves or risk the health of their family and loved ones. As schools begin to reopen, many education officials fear a wave of early retirements, resignations, and leave requests driven by health concerns. This does not bode well for an education system already facing a teacher shortage. While some school districts may have enough substitute teachers or the ability to have certain teachers teach exclusively online, others will not be so fortunate. This could send a devastating shockwave throughout the entire education system.
CALIFORNIA’S SAFE IN-PERSON SCHOOL GUIDELINES
In a decision to maximize safety, Governor Newsom’s plan introduces a set of guidelines schools must adhere to in order to send students back to the classroom.
Strong mask requirements. Governor Newsom made California the first state to explicitly enforce mandatory masks at schools. All school staff and students in third grade and above must wear masks while students in second grade and below are highly encouraged to wear masks or face shields.
Physical distancing protocols. Under physical distancing directives, the guidelines state that staff must maintain at least six feet between each other and with students. This poses an immense challenge as California schools have been dealing with over-capacity classrooms for some time.
And even if they can stay away from their students, health experts also have concerns about airborne transmission indoors. In a recent study conducted by the University of California, Davis, researchers found that more than eight in ten of the classrooms in California lack adequate ventilation systems. In San Francisco, some schools have entire buildings in which the windows do not open. This is certainly a worrisome issue the state will have to monitor moving forward.
Robust sanitation standards. The state’s guidelines call for schools to implement sanitation protocols. These include increasing the number of handwashing stations, stockpiling an ample amount of disinfectants, requiring routine cleanings, and conducting daily temperature checks for students and staff.
While this appears to be a secure plan on paper, it could prove to be a logistical nightmare for schools. Even after California distributed an initial shipment of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and sanitation supplies from the state’s stockpiles in June, many school districts still did not come close to meeting the recommended targets. By mid-July, SFUSD had gathered one out of every eight thermometers and bottles of hand soap it needed and continues to lack masks, gloves, disinfectants, wipes, and other supplies.
In order for San Francisco schools to fulfill their PPE and sanitation targets this fall, one estimate had the price tag at $27 million. As SFUSD and other school districts face a mounting budget shortfall, it is not clear how they meet these supply targets without outside help.
Regular testing and dedicated contact tracing. Once schools physically open, staff will be regularly tested on a rotating cohort basis. Governor Newsom even made the healthcare providers of school staff pick up the costs of the tests to reduce any barriers to testing.
Taking testing one step further, the state’s plan laid out a directive to provide schools with the support of the state’s contact tracing workforce. By doing so, they will hopefully limit the number of school-related outbreaks.
Closing in-person learning. All of these measures will help safeguard schools to the best of their ability, but health and education officials know that they cannot completely keep COVID-19 out of schools. As a result, the state has put forward a response plan for when cases have been detected in schools.
When a confirmed case is found, schools must first consult with a public health officer. After doing so, the classroom cohort associated with the confirmed case will be sent home. When multiple cohorts have cases or more than five percent of the school tests positive, then the entire school must close. The last safeguard happens if 25 percent of schools in a district close, which results in the entire school district shutting down and remaining closed for a 14 day period.
ADDRESSING LEARNING STYLES DURING COVID-19
After Governor Newsom’s released the state’s pandemic plan for schools, it became official that the way students learned and teachers taught would be unlike any other school year.
Distance learning. With no in-person learning to start the year, Governor Newsom made it clear that “learning is non-negotiable [and] schools must provide meaningful instruction even if it’s online.” The pandemic plan calls it “rigorous distance learning”. To reach the new statewide requirements outlined in the plan, teachers must interact live with their students on a daily basis and create challenging assignments equivalent to in-person classes. This set lofty expectations for teachers, despite the widespread challenges distanced learning presented at the end of the 2019-2020 school year.
Across the board, distance learning was pretty much a failure according to Mark Sanchez, President of the San Francisco Board of Education. While teachers have been able to learn from each other and discuss best practices, the challenges of distance learning remain.
Much of the success of distance learning depends on a few key factors, including the learning style of the student, the age of the student (much harder for younger children), and the teaching style and technical capabilities of teachers. Furthermore, some students lack a strong internet connection, reliable technology, or family members with the know-how or time to help.
These issues became front and center during the pandemic as online learning amplified the inequalities of the digital divide. The California Department of Education estimated that as of mid-June, schools reported needing 416,000 Wi-Fi hotspots and 765,000 devices. This lack of access to technology not only creates an unequal playing field but it makes education completely out of reach for many children, based purely on their family’s income or location.
California’s plan acknowledges the struggles caused by the digital divide and mandates that all students must have access to devices and connectivity for the upcoming school year. To help school districts reach this goal, the state made funding available to assist with purchasing tech supplies. Schools have also been heavily supported by the philanthropic and business communities that stepped up and are still working to bridge the gap in technology and connectivity for students.
In San Francisco, SFUSD distributed more than 12,000 Chromebooks to students in need, but thousands of those students still encountered connectivity issues. As a result, the City has been working to improve internet connection for families of SFUSD students by distributing 3,500 personal hotspot devices, deploying 25 WiFi “SuperSpots,” and connecting more than 1,300 public housing units to the internet through the Fiber to Housing program.
And in recent news, Mayor Breed announced the creation—pending approval from local and state health officials—of 40 “Community Learning Hubs” around the City to help up to 6,000 children with distance-learning needs.
Hybrid Models. Even when schools meet the requirements to physically open, some California schools will elect to gradually bring students back and employ a hybrid model of learning that combines in-person and online education. A few of the hybrid models include scheduling that uses A/B week blended learning, two-day rotation blended learning, and early/late staggered scheduling. The hybrid model is a good fit for schools that want to take a cautious approach to reopen or need more time to prepare the school to accommodate the state’s reopening guidelines and secure a sufficient stockpile of PPE and sanitation supplies.
EVEN IN OUR SCHOOLS, SAFETY MUST REIGN SUPREME
As an important and vital institution that keeps this country economically and academically competitive on the world stage, public education has not been treated as such for some time. Already plagued with widespread teacher shortages, oversized classrooms, and frighteningly low levels of funding, the American public education system was barely hanging on when COVID-19 struck. Now as school districts across the country adapt to education in the age of COVID-19, the issues and inequalities already affecting our education system have become magnified even further.
This will not be an easy journey for students, educators, and parents alike. But in order to return to some sense of normalcy and get students back to the classroom, our leaders must take the necessary precautions to reopen cities, especially when it comes to schools—the most important space that shapes the minds of the future generation.