California’s School Reopening Plan: Rules for Getting Kids in Class Highlight Racial Disparities

How California students are getting back into classrooms after a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PUBLISHED APR 25, 2021 12:00 A.M.
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California’s school reopening plan was criticized for favoring wealthy, mostly white districts.

California’s school reopening plan was criticized for favoring wealthy, mostly white districts.   NASA / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

On March 29, 14,000 elementary school students in Long Beach returned to their school buildings for the first time since March 16 of 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person learning—as well as most everything else in American society. The fourth-largest school district in California, Long Beach became the biggest in the state to bring kids back into classrooms, at that point.

But Governor Gavin Newsom had set April 1 as the deadline for schools throughout California to open their doors to students in grades K-2. That deadline was not met, and California’s attempt to restart good old-fashioned in-person school got off to a hesitant start—even though Newsom and the state legislature in March allocated $2 billion to help districts get their youngest pupils off Zoom and back in classrooms, out of $6.6 billion total in the plan.

A full week after the deadline, according to data collected by the Los Angeles Times, only 37 percent of elementary school students had the “option” to go back to school. Only one in five middle school and high school students (19 percent and 20 percent respectively) were able to attend school in person, if they chose.

Overall, 1.7 million of the state’s 6.1 million public and charter school students were able to go back to classrooms, or about 28 percent. Those include students in schools that were offering full-time, in-person school, and those in some combination of on-site and remote classes.

The 10 California counties where all students had the option to attend in-person school, as of early April, were all in the northern, mostly rural, part of the state, including Del Norte, Modoc, Trinity, Lassen, Plumas and Sierra counties.

The deal struck between the governor and the lawmakers did not require that schools reopen. Instead, it offered financial incentives to open up. The law did not require that students or teachers be vaccinated against COVID-19 before returning to school. Nor did it require the approval of teachers’ unions, which have remained highly skeptical of sending their members back into classrooms during the pandemic.

Teachers’ unions have of course been concerned with the safety of their members in an indoor, classroom environment. According to CDC data, “in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission.” But that doesn’t mean that school is somehow “safe.” In communities where the virus is spreading at a rapid rate, it will also spread in schools.

“Significant secondary transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection can and does occur in school settings when prevention strategies are not implemented or are not followed,” according to the CDC. “When outbreaks occur in school settings, they tend to result in increased transmission among teachers and school staff rather than among students.”

Israel’s experience offered a cautionary example. That country reopened schools early in the pandemic, but failed to follow strict safety guidelines, and didn’t even keep a mask mandate in place. The result? Schools closed down just two weeks after reopening, with 25 of 151 teachers and staff who were tested for the coronavirus coming back positive.

The $2 billion under Newsom’s plan goes for safety measures such as improved ventilation and protective equipment for school personnel and students. The other $4.6 billion that schools can collect by hitting their reopening deadlines goes to “expanded learning opportunities,” including summer classes and mental health resources.

But the teachers’ union in Los Angeles raised another objection to Newsom’s plan, blasting the governor’s reopening model for “propagating structural racism” by offering cash to schools which can reopen quickly, and penalizing those that can’t. Most schools that had moved well along the road to reopening were in wealthier, whiter districts.

The Los Angeles Times in February did its own survey of 23 school districts in L.A. County, finding that 10 of them were prepared to reopen schools as soon as the state gave the word, and in all 10, less than half of the students came from low-income families. But in the other 13—those that had no date for reopening—10 were districts where more than half of students were from low-income backgrounds.

To qualify for the new state funds allocated under Newsom’s deal with the legislature, school districts must open at least one of grades seven through 12. Those that failed to meet the reopening goals by April would lose 1 percent of the promised funds for every day after April 1—a provision that likely would hit lower-income and minority districts disproportionately, because those districts have to do more work with fewer resources to get into position to reopen and obtain that funding.

The racial and economic disparity could also be seen in the attitudes of parents toward school reopenings. With communities populated primarily by people of color and low-income families hardest hit by the pandemic, it was perhaps little surprise that according to data from a January University of Southern California research study, more than half of Black, Latinx, and Asian parents favored keeping their kids out of school buildings and in remote learning programs.

At the same time, 63 percent of white parents, and 68 percent of parents from families earning more than $150,000 in annual income supported opening schools for in-person instruction.

New nationwide guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, issued in March, put additional pressure on school districts to get kids back into classrooms. The CDC decreed that the amount of distancing between students’ desks could be cut in half, compared to the previous standard—three feet instead of six.

California adopted the new guidance immediately, but left it up to individual districts whether or not to go along with the shorter spacing. Doing so would allow more bodies into classrooms, cutting down on the need for “hybrid” learning—that is, a combination of in-person classes and remote, online instruction— but according to L.A. Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, quoted by the Los Angeles Times, districts face a bigger problem in getting themselves reopened after more than a year of the pandemic.

“Our challenge is convincing families that schools are safe, not finding ways to stuff more kids into classrooms,” Beutner said.

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