Schools Reopening in July? The Concerns Over How Gov. Newsom's Idea Will Work

Social distancing would be one challenge facing schools should they reopen. (Maroke/iStock)

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s suggestion on Tuesday that schools could reopen for the next academic year as soon as late July or early August drew mixed reaction from parents, teachers and education officials — raising questions about safety, what classrooms will look like and whether schools have the money to pull it off.

Newsom indicated he would like schools to push to bring students back, if it can be done safely, due to concern about students falling behind and the inequities some are experiencing while learning at home.

The state does not have the power to tell school districts when to reopen, but it can provide guidelines. And district leaders have vastly different thoughts on reopening based on their communities.

Can Schools Reopen Safely?

Educators have floated several ideas for how social distancing might continue in school settings — from staggering school days or start times, to smaller class sizes with desks spaced 6 feet apart.

Newsom spoke of preparing schools physically, which may mean equipping schools for more hand washing during the day, for example.

California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond seemed surprised by the news of a potential reopening of schools in his initial response.

He moved quickly to convene a working group Wednesday, including superintendents from across the state, to try and address what must take place before schools can reopen.

“If this is going to work, there are some major questions we will have to answer. First and foremost: Can this be done in a way that protects the health and safety of our students, teachers and school staff?" Thurmond asked.

Some leaders of Bay Area teachers unions echoed these concerns.

Demetrio Gonzalez, president of the United Teachers of Richmond, which represents teachers in West Contra Costa Unified School District, said the idea has not been discussed at all in the district.

“If the Governor's comments made you feel uneasy, please remember that this idea is an item subject to bargaining,” Gonzalez wrote to his members.

Many Bay Area school districts with individual labor agreements would need to renegotiate to accommodate summer learning. “Ultimately UTR and our community would have to agree with these ideas,” Gonzalez wrote.

Sponsored

A Need for Funding 

Meanwhile, fear about the state's budgeting for schools was the focus of a state Assembly subcommittee meeting Tuesday.

Education Resources

Districts are facing looming financial concerns because tax revenues have been slashed because of the pandemic. That could lead to program cuts, layoffs or even bankruptcy for some. In January, Newsom proposed boosting school funding by $1.2 billion, but with revenues tumbling and expenses mounting, he's likely to introduce a radically different proposal next month.

Legislators, educators and budget officials discussed what a revised budget from the governor might mean for education, specifically when it comes to helping students make up for lost learning time during the pandemic.

Though concerned about students’ learning loss during the pandemic, Assemblymember Monique Limón, D-Santa Barbara, cautioned, “It is not clear we will be able to have a discussion about any added funding. So it’s important for all of us to try and transition to what the new realities are, being a state with tens of billions of dollars in a deficit we didn’t expect to have.”

Learning Loss: An Equity Issue

The concern about learning loss is at the forefront for Newsom and others who are hopeful school will reopen early this year.

But even if students were to reenter school buildings in late July, some variation of online learning would likely need to continue, and for the 2.1 million students who still lack internet across the state, that experience would need to improve.

Student Resources

Any reopening of schools would need to begin with assessing students, several educators told the state Assembly subcommittee Tuesday.

Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of The Education Trust-West, a nonprofit focusing on education equity, said her biggest concern is students who were on the margins academically before the pandemic hit.

“As we move into recovery, one of the most important things to do is going to be really centering how we engage those students and build the rest of the recovery mechanisms around those students,” Arrillaga said.

Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education, took a more hopeful tone, telling the subcommittee there are proven ways to target resources and instruction to accelerate learning for students who have fallen behind.

An additional red flag is the emotional trauma students may be experiencing, which makes this pandemic different from the traditional summer break.

Researchers Megan Kufeld and Beth Tarasawa, with the Northwest Evaluation Association, looked at data from summer learning loss and applied it to the pandemic. They estimate students experiencing the pandemic will return in the fall with “roughly 70% of the learning gains in reading, relative to a typical school year.” In math, they find students in some grades could show up a full year behind.

Even weeks into this current distance learning experiment, there is much work to be done to ensure students are participating while at home. In West Contra Costa Unified, thousands are still not logging into the district’s attendance platform, PowerSchool, according to Gonzalez, the president of UTR.

“Last week, we had an average of about 14,000 logins daily,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll have more accurate data this week now that teachers are tracking engagement in PowerSchool."

He said the district was working with the Teamsters, who represent the district's classified employees, to help reach more of the district's 32,000 students.

Smith Arrillaga said this is exactly what needs to be happening in the months approaching any return to classes in person.

“That kind of herculean effort to connect with students and understand what was going on with their families, the payoff for that in the long run is going to be huge,” she said. “Because ultimately students need to know that they and their families are cared for in order to ground the academic work that is to come.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Sponsored